On Monday, I awoke to the news that James Blunt had retired from the music industry. “I just want to take some time out for myself,” he told The Daily Mail, “I haven’t got any plans to do more songwriting.”
Since 2004, which saw the release of his first album Back to Bedlam and its smash hit single “You’re Beautiful,” Blunt has been on a rollercoaster of fame and ridicule. Critics across the globe, especially in England, have mocked his sentimentality to no end and written him off as unoriginal. At the same time, he has sold out world tours and sold over 18 million albums.
I am a huge and unabashed James Blunt fan. I remember hearing his music on the radio in Portugal the summer before it was released in the US and rushing to find it when I returned home. Sure, his lyrics are sappy and cliché. His chord progressions and time signatures are nothing innovative. But his voice and relaxed melodies attracted me, and somehow I can still sing every song off that first album by heart.
As “You’re Beautiful” took off, I watched from the sideline as Blunt became yet another artist defined by a hit single. I didn’t understand: it was the worst song on the album! My support for him solidified as it became apparent that most of his “fans” only knew one or two of his songs. I dug deeper into his bio: raised in a military family, studied aerospace engineering and sociology at university, and six years of military service, including front line action in Kosovo directing NATO bombing campaigns. He brought his guitar to Kosovo, and the intense experiences there inspired many of the songs off Bedlam.
This was not the story of your typical pop radio one hit wonder. Here was a normal guy who wrote some deeply personal songs that caught the ear of some industry big shots. A single catapulted him to worldwide recognition, and his well-documented hard partying ways linked him to Brit-rock bad boys like Pete Doherty. But the public was mistaken. He has stated that “fame and celebrity is something that other people have constructed that I’m not really party to,” and has often sought refuge from public scrutiny and media attention.
He released two more albums, All The Lost Souls (2007) and Some Kind of Trouble (2010), and continued touring, but never again had an international hit. While not as cohesive as Back to Bedlam, his other albums proved Blunt was not a flash in the pan and had legitimate songwriting talent. His live performance was markedly distant from the yearning he exhibited on albums; soft rock turned into bar room singalongs and covers of bands like The Pixies and U2 often popped up in sets.
His decision to retire is not particularly surprising. He has made enough money to support himself forever. He has an extremely beautiful model girlfriend. He has villas in Switzerland and Ibiza. And he is constantly attacked in the British press for being posh (read: snobbish and aristocratic) because of his diction and accent. Americans don’t really understand the intensity of class divisions in England or tabloid culture in England, but suffice to say that I’m surprised more artists don’t scramble to get out from under the microscope.
But the decision is sad for his fans. His music is often simple - organ, piano, guitar, voice – as are the messages. He approached relationships with wit and self-deprecation, begged for people to treat each other with respect and kindness, and was nostalgic about loves lost and dance floors emptied. He joked about casual drug use and affairs. He sang his heart out.
Break-up music it may be, but his songs have been a constant companion through difficult moments, namely when I watched a friend’s dog get run down by a car. James Blunt actually cares, and that feeling comes through his music.
And now he is moving into a new phase in life. “It’s times like these I don’t want to be a superstar, ‘cause reality TV killed them all in America” he sang. His fans understand, and applaud a worthy career. We wish him all the best, and look forward to a nostalgia tour in a few decades.
NOTE FROM THE WRITER: As of press time, James Blunt has not, in fact, retired. His comments were misreported by various respectable news outlets, including The Daily Mail and The New Musical Express (NME), and propagated by a range of others. He did not refute the claim until days after. I am very glad he plans on continuing to release music!