Album review: Amy MacDonald: Life in a Beautiful Light

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HAVING taken a year off to recharge her batteries, Amy MacDonald hasn’t progressed much in her songwriting. Maybe it’s time to bring in the hitmakers

Amy MacDonald: Life in a Beautiful Light

Mercury, £12.99

**

In a pop landscape dominated by primped and pimped young women, Amy MacDonald, your refreshing, regular girl next door, should stand out as an accessible role model. But if you ask a young girl whose poster she wants on her wall, the likelihood is that she will choose the candy-striped Katy Perry, glammed-up Rihanna or hideously stylised Jessie J.

MacDonald’s audience falls outside the typical teen pop constituency. Many of them are old enough to be her parents, probably drawn in by her old-fashioned Scotpop sound. The kicker is that MacDonald does not particularly come across as an old soul, unlike her contemporary Paolo Nutini. Her current single Slow It Down is her note to self, as a confirmed girl racer, to check her need for speed, and her early hits, written, recorded and released when she was still a teenager, made a stab at capturing carefree youth.

Maybe MacDonald is too busy enjoying her success, especially across Europe, to worry about being the voice of a generation or anything as weighty or ambitious as that. But the flipside is that, though she can clearly write a breezy tune at the drop of a plectrum, there is not much evidence of progress or sophistication in her songwriting on this third album, which was produced following a year off to recharge her batteries.

Many of the songs feel formulaic, cantering along at a toe-tapping pace without reeling in the listener. From the moment she steps on the gas to go into her first chorus, it is inoffensive AOR radio fare all the way. Her lyrical vocabulary is obvious and unimaginative. The title track is all stars and butterflies to convey happiness, while 4th of July is a clichéd muddle of seasons and weather, flags and fireworks, intended to evoke a childhood trip to New York. Had MacDonald not cited the specific inspiration for the track, I would never have known there was anything personal in what she is singing.

Life In A Beautiful Light is overwhelmingly upbeat and positive in a superficial way; there is no joy embedded in the fabric of the songs, no exultant release of euphoria.

MacDonald seems keen to push the idea that she’s just a contented soul writing simple, direct songs. Unusually for a solo songwriter at her level, she has not caved in to the pressure to co-write with proven hitmakers. “I won’t sell my soul to achieve my goal,” she sings on The Furthest Star, her ode to integrity, replete with more references to celestial bodies. While this is admirable to a point, the counter argument is that MacDonald needs that push to lift her songwriting out of the mundane and give it some much needed emotional heft. The Proclaimers, for example, make a virtue of their honesty as writers but they can tackle well-worn topics with a poetic eloquence that MacDonald has so far been unable to muster.

Her weaknesses as a writer are exposed when she tries to engage with the wider world. MacDonald spent a fair deal of her time off watching the news and this has filtered through to her songs in rudimentary fashion. She celebrates the Chilean miners on Human Spirit and the solidarity of the people of Egypt on Across The Nile with a fluent tune but lyrics which don’t bear much scrutiny.

Pride, inspired by her experience of rallying big crowds at football matches, might just be bland and non-specific enough to become an anthem for the independence campaign with its woolly assertion that “I’d move mountains if you asked me to … I’ll be the one to hold your torch”.

The Green & The Blue presents the sunny side of sectarianism. MacDonald is a Rangers fan; some of her pals support Celtic. So what she wants to know is, why can’t we all just get along? But perhaps this song is shrewder than it appears. Who would be foolish enough to score an own goal by challenging a happy wee lassie with her guitar?

And there are some signs of development as a writer (coincidentally?) on the sadder songs. Left That Body, her response to losing her gran to Alzheimer’s, is more personal, truthful and far more affecting than The Days Of Being Young & Free, in which she tries to put herself in the shoes of a world-weary older character. She also displays some tenderness and vulnerability on the closing Two Worlds, which is more flattering for losing the beefy, anachronistic pop/rock sound of the rest of the album.

She also impresses at the opposite end of the scale, with The Game, a lush, maximalist Caledonian country-tinged epic which stands out from all the banal jauntiness in arrangement, scope and vocal performance, and might just be the song to punt MacDonald to the Adele masses.