JUST JACK: ALL NIGHT CINEMA *** MERCURY, £12.72
IN SOME respects, it is a surprise to hear from "Just" Jack Allsopp again. After scoring a top ten hit in 2007 with the supremely catchy Starz In Their Eyes, his career as the latest British white boy geezer rapper didn't exactly catch fire, making him a potentially vulnerable under-performer on a major label, the bargain-bin Streets who somehow didn't make commercial sense and whose slot on the chart carousel was nimbly taken by a girl instead.
While Lily Allen has made a brilliant pop star – mainstream, identifiable, but just that bit different from what has gone before – Allsopp has never looked that comfortable in the spotlight. Allen throws her diary open with abandon; Allsopp is more a chronicler of other people's woes. Like Calvin Harris, he can churn out the poppy tunes with no difficulty, but sometimes even the most bare-faced melody fails to capture the masses.
But here he is, back with a fresh batch of observational minutiae, tunes that hit the spot so instantly you would swear you already knew them (you maybe do – if you have heard any Just Jack material before; there is a sense of dj vu about much of this album) and the occasional new trick.
Opening gambit Embers was an unexpected choice as the first single off this album, but it is one of Allsopp's more audacious moves to build a track out of sophisticated staccato strings, clacking handclaps, subtle needling guitar and layer on layer of Allsopp's monotonous vocal, creating an elegant mantra which concludes "we are all embers from the same fire".
Thereafter, he retreats to safer ground, and All Night Cinema trains its beady lens on the familiar hopes, disappointments and frustrations of everyday folks in a succession of superficially banal kitchen-sink snapshots that are the musical equivalent of Jimmy McGovern's The Street, with all the Greek tragedy excised.
For example, 253 is named after the bus the narrator is taking home as he ponders a relationship he has finally called time on. It is thoroughly obvious, thoroughly recognisable sentiments are delivered in awkward rhyming couplets – "at first she was all that I could see, 'til other girls appeared in my periphery" – which eschew meter in favour of just cramming in everything that needs to be said and making it fit (see also Glasvegas for other examples of this "technique").
The Day I Died is a goofy, acoustic shuffle in the vein of Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson, which adopts the same prosaic documentary style as Abba's The Day Before You Came. Having ruined the element of surprise with the song title, Jack spools through an ordinary day – eating breakfast, running for the bus, the schadenfreude his protagonist feels when a colleague is sacked, quick trip to the off-licence on the way home – concluding with some ambiguity that "the day I died was the best day of my life". But he never explains why. Is it because there was joy in the mundane? Or is there a back-handed message to seize the day because you never know when your number will be up?
There is ambivalence rather than ambiguity in the infectious Doctor Doctor, as Jack builds up, then tears down, his unattainable object of desire. So Wrong also takes up the theme of a woman's sexual power but does so from the perspective of the girl working the room.
On a darker note, Blood is a seemingly dispassionate recounting of a stabbing ("a kid got stuck on a sliver of silver, watched in the street by a gang of builders"), which gradually pans the camera back to take in the emotional perspective.
Allsopp doesn't like to paint it too black, though. Astronaut's story of a waster ("he's been a space cadet for years, says one day he'll be an astronaut") sounds like one of Madness's less nutty numbers, while sure-fire future single Goth In The Disco supersedes its remit as a daft novelty number and emerges as a neat little satire on the self-loathing emo culture (for which, read typical teenage behaviour) allied to an ber-catchy Starz In Their Eyes-style chorus.
In the main, this is all perceptively drawn but unchallenging stuff. Even when Allsopp moves briefly from talking about the real world to his dream world on the woozily soundtracked title track, he won't make the leap into a hallucinatory dimension, preferring to behold his dream state from the safety of the morning after – "they're the strangest things that I have ever beheld, so barmy and beautiful, they're monstrously miniscule" he says of his own personal "all night cinema".
The line "sometimes the stories glisten and other times they sound so weak" could even be an unwitting commentary on his own work.