Sahara Beck: Panacea

A gift can be a heavy burden to carry. Sahara Beck is gifted – the 19-year-old has a wonderfully smoky, elastic voice, and she sings like she has all the time and not a care in the world. She’s also a promising songwriter, with a natural, formidable stage presence. In short, she was born to do what she does, and her talent has been recognised early, with awards, radio exposure and high-profile shows.

It all raises expectations ahead of Beck’s second album, Panacea (her first was recorded when she was just 14, with two EPs following in 2013 and 2015) – and you can sense the burden. It’s a good album, well written, brilliantly played and produced, flawed by the artist’s self-consciousness. Instead of winning your heart, Beck wants to blow your mind.

This tendency to show off appears early, with the first single Here It Comes. The stark blues riff at the song’s centre is weighed down with a kitchen-sink arrangement that’s topped off by a wailing coda reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s interminable Great Gig In The Sky. It’s formally impressive – and it will have festival crowds roaring in approval whenever it’s performed live. It’s also completely superfluous.

Partly it’s a curse of the age we live in, of melismatic singing on talent shows, where spectacle is everything and understatement is undervalued. So much of Panacea is dressed up, when the songs would be better served by being stripped down. Beck’s mastery of jazz, blues, country and pop is reminiscent of k.d. lang; someone should slip her a copy of Ingenue for a quick schooling in restraint, taste and control.

Instead we get Crack Bang Bang, with its parping horns and ragtime rhythm; the busy percussion of Tapping On The Roof that’s all too obviously meant to mimic the sound conveyed by the title, and – everywhere – big electric guitars and drums that roll and thunder when an acoustic and brushed strokes might be more effective. Counter-intuitively, the effect is to smother Beck’s talents, rather than accentuate them.

There are just a few moments of shade that provide respite from Panacea’s relentless blinding light. There are the lovely introductions to both Ooh Lala and I’m In Love, before the band kicks in. And the album closes strongly – Sarah is a sweet piano ballad, Mother Mother is a gorgeous paean to a dysfunctional family life, and the final song, Don’t Hold Your Breath, is best of all, with Beck’s voice at its most relaxed.

When Beck relaxes, she is a pleasure to listen to. There’s no need for her to force herself upon the listener by making such a racket: her gift should be allowed to speak for itself. Instead, Panacea begs you to look at what she can do, rather than inviting you to listen. Hopefully, her next album will find her looser and more confident in her ability to move listeners without trying so hard to amaze them.

First published in The Guardian, 22 April 2016

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