In his latest record, the minimalistic The Hardest Part, Oliver James dabbles in postmodernity on multiple fronts while staying true to the alternative singer/songwriter style he set forth at the onset of his career some time ago. James’ warm vocal leads the way through four of the most decadently-stylized tracks he and his band have ever included on one EP, and while there’s a lot to be commented on with regards to the marvelous musicianship here, I couldn’t help but find myself turning back to his sensitive voice in the grander scheme of things more than I do anything else in the record.
The lyrical aspect of “Wait for Me” and “Still Holding My Breath” is more limited than any of the actual harmonization surrounding it is, but my gut tells me that this was deliberately made this way by James when composing both of these songs. He’s undisputedly got a lot to say to us in The Hardest Part, and he’s not necessarily expressing himself through his words as much as he is the method of execution he’s employing when singing them to us. It’s a complicated way of getting something across to us, but in a complicated world, it’s a rather relevant exhibit of art literally imitating life, and in turn, imitating art all over again.
James’ emotion in “A Different Kind of Pain is impossible to ignore, especially as we get deeper into the song’s carefully controlled psychedelic chaos, but I don’t think that he’s being particularly excessive or self-centered in this track at all. Contrarily, his confident assault of the lyrics indicates a desire to put everything on the line with us here, which, I think we can all agree, is something that a lot of artists would love to do but very few are actually able to accomplish with any sort of commercial success. I’m not saying The Hardest Part is going to break James’ work into the mainstream market, but it’s absolutely an exceptionally robust record (especially for being only four-songs-long) worthy of more airplay than its discographic forerunners received.
The master mix on the title track is the most polished of any on the EP, and while it helps to shine some light on a liberal element in Oliver James’ artistry, I would really like to hear him experiment with this same formatted sound more in the future. He seems more focused on minor intricacies in The Hardest Part than he has been in past releases, but he isn’t exploiting the finer points of the key melodies in the title cut, “Still Holding My Breath” and “A Different Kind of Pain” as much as he potentially could in a no-restrictions recording situation.
The Hardest Part is admittedly not the most accessible extended play available out of the underground this winter, but it’s definitely one of the most thought-provoking that I’ve had the pleasure of picking up in the month of December without a doubt. Oliver James is unstoppably (and affectionately) swaggering in all four of the songs here, and though he’s set the bar pretty high for himself in previous endeavors, this is an undebatable peak for his body of work released in the 2010’s. It probably won’t win over every critic as it has me, but for the audience it was tailor-made for, it’s an act that’s awfully hard to follow.