Rae Morris has done things the proper way. Having played second fiddle to a chunk of the music industry since 2011, it’s obvious that the Blackpool-born 22 year old has never passed up a chance to learn from those perched loftily above her on the festival bill. Be it supporting Noah and the Whale at the Royal Albert Hall, providing a feature spot on a Bombay Bicycle Club track, or playing a BBC Introducing stage in a flooded corner of a festival site, Morris has evidently been studying at every opportunity the potholes that have caused careers to peak and trough around her. As such, her debut Unguarded breathes with the kind of seasoned freedom that artists tend only to discover on their fourth or fifth album attempt, when the contrived impulse to prove one’s talents is superseded by the drive to make uninhibited art.
It’s what a talented creative’s debut should be, but rarely is. Morris is clearly a perfectionist of sorts – there isn’t a corner of the record that hasn’t been filed down and rounded with a fastidious attention to detail. The result is a master class in subtlety, and twelve tracks of near-perfectly measured and refined electro-pop poignancy.
The three opening songs are a calculated initiation into Morris’s palette of compact drum lines, pulsating synths and ethereal vocals. ‘Closer’ showcases her at her most airily Imogen Heap-ish. ‘Love Again’ is the record’s most overt flirtation with dance styling, and a firm highlight. A collaborative effort with Fryars on ‘Cold’ doesn’t come together quite as well as it could, but ‘Do You Even Know?’ provides a sharp refocus with some clever melodic and vocal balances set against an eclectic yet streamlined fusion of strings, glockenspiel and precise rhythms. It’s a cleanly emotive surge to the finish with the stripped back and neatly composed ‘This Time’ and ‘Not Knowing’.
And that’s that. Each song is meticulously balanced, each beat calculated to a fault. Morris’s composition, layering and effortless use of space are real wonders to behold. Yet after a full play, it’s hard not to feel vaguely, inexplicably cheated.
As a body of work it’s crying out for a smear or smudge to relieve the occasionally suffocating cleanliness
Every song bar the album closer sits at between 3:30 and 3:59 minutes in length, and as one tries to single out moments of shade, depth and crescendo, it becomes apparent that Unguarded is an album that treats its listeners far too kindly. The precision and composure of Morris’s effort is impressive, but as a result it fails to be genuinely, painfully experiential – Unguarded is a walk in a manicured garden, not the trek through the wilderness that it promises to be.
Firmer pressure from the hand of producer Ariel Rechtshaid, known for his ability to artfully fray edges with past collaborators Haim and Vampire Weekend, could comfortably have introduced some grizzlier chunks to this well blended affair. The record strikes the most resonant chords when the uniformity of the production is relinquished, like on closing track ‘Not Knowing’. Yet these stark moments of vital carelessness are few and far between – as a body of work it’s crying out for a smear or smudge to relieve the occasionally suffocating cleanliness.
Unguarded is still an assured debut from a prolifically talented musician. Yet it is hard to shift the feeling that Morris has here missed an opportunity to take some inimitable risks by failing to increase the brightness, thereby casting some darker shadows. She still has some lessons to learn.