By Will Hayes, Fourth Year Politics and Spanish
In Praise of Shadows is the latest offering from singer-songwriter Jacob Allen, AKA Puma Blue. In the vein of his earlier EPs, Swum Baby and Blood Loss, the south London native’s debut full-length effort mixes elements of Jazz, RnB and lo-fi Hip Hop to create a project that will sound both unique and familiar to fans of those genres.
Taking its name from the title of an essay by Japanese author and aesthete Tanizaki Junichiro, the album explores themes of love, loss, yearning and loneliness, with Allen’s vocals softly floating over grainy, home-produced instrumentals.
The overarching mood of the album is sombre and slightly melancholy: as Allen describes it, his aim was to explore 'the idea of… the darkness in your life bearing importance’. Of course, this means running the risk of being a bit thematically monotonal - there’s only so many times you can sing vaguely about unrequited love or being alone without it starting to get stale.
However, Puma Blue manages to mostly avoid this, touching on more personal subjects like the near-death of his sister on 'Velvet Leaves' and channeling his inner Ed Sheeran on 'Already Falling': he croons that he’s ‘already falling in love with the shape of you’ (although it must be said that the similarities between the two artists don’t stretch much further).
Two interludes break the project up into three sections, shifting between different styles and moods. Jangly, jazzy guitar chords that wouldn’t sound out of place on a King Krule record give way to vocals more reminiscent of James Blake or Bon Iver, held together throughout most of the project by thudding, low-end kick drums undoubtedly inspired by the late, great J Dilla.
The album’s 14 tracks are, overall, a great collection of sultry, brooding songs. Some, such as 'Sweet Dreams', 'Already Falling' and 'Cherish', do exactly what they say on the tin- that is, they are very conventional Puma Blue fair, hitting all the key points of what has brought Allen success this far. The only one that really falls short of the mark is 'Silk Print'. This spacey, downtempo, vocal-driven track shows some promise initially of developing into something interesting but never quite seems to get there, meandering aimlessly to an unsatisfying ending.
Nevertheless, other diversions from the more standard Puma Blue formula are much more successful. 'Sheets', a rare glimpse of Allen actually being in a happy, loving relationship, is at the same time rough and beautiful - messy, fuzzy guitar mixes with quavering vocals to paint a vivid picture of contentedness in the arms of a lover. On the other end of the spectrum, the 6-minute slow jam 'Is It Because' feels like something of a masterpiece, taking everything that makes Puma Blue great and executing it to perfection- it is without a doubt the album’s standout track.
Overall, In Praise of Shadows draws on its numerous influences to form an interesting, innovative body of work. Disparate elements of a range of genres mesh together over its runtime, held in place by sometimes angelic, other times tortured vocals. Although Allen’s pained, remorseful musings might not be for everyone, they’re sure to strike a chord with his existing fans, and the mixture of what we’ve come to expect and innovation from Puma Blue makes this project a good starting point for any new listeners. For these cold winter months and lonely lockdown nights, this debut studio album is sure to mark the beginning of a long career for this rising artist.
Featured: Netti Hurley
Have you listened to Puma Blue? What do you think?