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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alexis Petridis

Jamie T: The Theory of Whatever review – a triumph from an indie-rock survivor

Jamie T with guitar on lap and cigarette in mouth, in front of a piano dotted with portraits
‘I’d play to an empty room, I don’t care’ … Jamie T. Photograph: Will Robson-Scott

It’s widely held that we live in an era when rock and pop artists need to keep in constant contact with their fanbase: that there’s so much music being released, you need to keep reminding people you exist. Anyone looking for an alternative theory might consider Jamie Treays. Every album he has released since his 2007 debut has made the Top 5, but his social media presence is minimal, he rarely gives interviews and his career has been pockmarked with longueurs during which nothing appears to happen at all. There was a five-year gap between his second album, Kings and Queens, and his third, Carry on the Grudge. The Theory of Whatever arrives six years after its predecessor, Trick, and boasts a cover photo of Treays, now 36, playing golf. He summed up his attitude during his recent packed and rapturously received headlining appearance on Glastonbury’s John Peel stage. “I don’t give a flying fuck any more,” he offered. “Thank you for coming to see us, but it really makes no difference to my life. I couldn’t give a fuck. I’d play to an empty room, I don’t care.”

The artwork for The Theory of Whatever.
The artwork for The Theory of Whatever. Photograph: Music PR handout

There’s clearly an element of self-preservation involved here: Treays has suffered from anxiety since his teens, an issue that a line on new song 90s Cars – about “thinking too much when I’m trying to get to sleep” – suggests is still ongoing. Nevertheless, you wonder if his avoidance of overexposure may not have positively affected his career.

On arrival, he seemed a very mid-00s kind of artist: a singer-songwriter who sang in a gorblimey south London accent (“I guess the carpet weren’t rolled ahht”) that caused some observers to note that he’d been to private school; his sound an amalgam of thrashy indie rock and ska, with socially observant lyrics and rap-inspired vocal delivery that bore the influence of the Streets, then a multi-platinum force. Most of Treays’ peers have long dropped off the radar – the 2007 end-of-year lists on which his debut album Panic Prevention figured heavily also featured the Klaxons, the View, Jack Peñate, the Ting Tings, the Pigeon Detectives and the Enemy – but he hasn’t. “He reckons me for a has-been,” sings Treays on the noticeably Blur-esque Thank You, the joke presumably being that he’s nothing of the sort. He is still headlining festivals, and judging by the crowd at Glastonbury, is now reaping the benefits of a burgeoning interest in mid-00s alt-rock among listeners who were toddlers when Panic Prevention was released. They’ll presumably be delighted by some of The Theory of Whatever’s more guitar-heavy moments – A Million & One New Ways to Die and Between the Rocks among them – which are easy to imagine blaring out of Radio 1 in between Foundations by Kate Nash and something off the second Kaiser Chiefs album.

Jamie T: St George’s Wharf Tower – video

His die-hard fans - the ones who set up Where Is Jamie T? social media groups during his absences and debate the exact meaning of his Glastonbury outburst on Reddit – would doubtless argue his enduring success is because his work is of a superior quality to his peers: more eclectic, less obviously fixated on a straightforward pop-facing version of indie rock. The Theory of Whatever offers evidence for that point of view. Well-written and sparky as the straightforward rock tracks are, the album’s most interesting moments come when Treays steps away from that field. 90s Cars unexpectedly latches on to Big Star’s haunted, lovelorn Kangaroo, borrowing its first verse and brilliantly recontextualising it: set over a New Order-ish bass and light-headed, lo-fi synths, it feels celebratory, which is some going given that the original feels like it’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If it isn’t entirely clear what St George Wharf Tower is driving at, with regards to Vauxhall’s oligarch-friendly residential skyscraper, the melody that Treays floats over folky fingerpicked guitar and ambient electronics is captivating. The Terror of Lambeth Love, meanwhile, is painfully slow and sickly-sounding: the music sounds as though it’s staggering home after a long night out, clutching at walls for support and wondering if it’s going to throw up.

Not everything he tries works – it’s a relief when the chaotic rock/rap crossover British Hell comes to an end – but despite its diversity, it hangs together as an album, the tracks bonded by a rough-edged grit. If Treays’ early career now looks prescient – in 2020 the rap-influenced singer-songwriter is a mainstream pop trope – he still seems a noticeably different, grubbier proposition. At Glastonbury, he mentioned that this album is his last under a major label deal he signed in his teens, a fact he was “celebrating”, which some observers interpreted as a sign he might be planning on stopping altogether. He has certainly mentioned quitting music before. But The Theory of Whatever is strong and individual enough to suggest something else: he could carry on ad infinitum, however sporadically he wishes.

This week Alexis listened to

Steve Lacy – Bad Habit
Addictive, ragged-sounding but tightly written: amid a sea of try-hard singles desperate to be summer hits, this could be the song of the season.

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