It's hard to imagine Will Young was especially thrilled when former label RCA opted to conclude a cash-in compilation of his work to date with an execrable cover of 'The Long And Winding Road' in partnership with Gareth Gates and orchestrated by Simon Cowell in the immediate aftermath of their time on Pop Idol.
It's a stage in Young's varied career that he has long since musically surpassed, even if the slight suspicion surrounding talent show acts loiters in the background. The grand chasm in quality between it and the same release's opening track 'Jealousy', from 2011's 'Echoes', served to highlight how far he had come in 10 years.
Now safely ensconced with Island Records, Young has seized the initiative and delivered a 10-track set containing some of the most deliciously instinctive and relentlessly endearing pop music you'll hear this year. '85% Proof' contains a northern soul belter, a glorious stadium-sized smash, several sparse piano ballads and a simmering, mid-paced teaser deploying the classic mid-song deceptive pause to majestic effect.
All of which is to say that this is just short of a masterclass in delivering a mature pop record, by which only the cold-hearted could remain utterly unmoved. The key to it all is Young's phenomenally expressive voice, which soars all over these songs, centre-stage and utterly commanding at all times.
While there are a few forgettable moments – notably 'U Think I'm Sexy', which deploys a looping, distorted horn sample that's almost as disappointing as the spelling of its title, while 'Thank You' feels a bit Robbie-does-Oasis before it goes all overblown backing vocals at the end – the highs are substantial.
Lead single 'Love Revolution' you'll already know, its bombastic chorus and delirious bridge built around clapping proving instantly memorable. Add in the shamelessly catchy euphoria of the aptly titled 'Joy', the MGMT synths that elevate 'Blue' to a point of majesty and the elegant, stately polish of 'Gold' and it's hard not to argue that this is his most accomplished record to date.
There's plenty of studio polish here and the genres crossed are legion, but that's what we want from our pop stars, isn't it? Big songs, big choruses and melody upon melody seem a realistic expectation. '85% Proof' delivers all of this but, as if to highlight that the key here is one man's distinctive voice ahead of any other parts of the process, there's a simple statement made.
The album's finest moment, 'I Don't Need A Lover', concludes proceedings with a minimal backdrop to accompany Young's emotive falsetto built around a piano and some relatively reserved strings. It's quite sincerely breathtaking and a reminder that no matter who the artist or the genre, a well-written song paired with a striking voice is all it takes to capture the listener's ear.
No matter where this particular career began, only the most churlish muso might fail to acknowledge the quality of this compact album. Will Young is in fine form and, on this evidence, about 70% great.
Words: Gareth James
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