Rollicking strings dispense a quiet harmony with Oliver James’ honeysweet vocal in the folky “Wait for Me” that is both simple and bitterly complex in its emotional tinge, but much like the song’s tracklist neighbor in the new EP The Hardest Part, “A Different Kind of Pain,” it takes more than a single listen to fully appreciate these complexities for how endearing they actually are. “A Different Kind of Pain” unfolds before us over the course of about six minutes, and though it takes over eighty seconds to find its central groove, its pulsating rhythm entrances anyone within earshot well before we reach this mark in the track. Whether he’s slowly peeling away the layers of an oddly countrified diatribe in “Still Holding My Breath” or chasing after a melody as ghostly as anything you’d find in an moonlit graveyard in the dead of the night on the title track of his latest record, Oliver James doesn’t hold anything back from his audience in The Hardest Part, and that alone makes this EP an interesting spin this December.
At a standard twenty minutes, The Hardest Part doesn’t really have the traditional construction of a super-ambitious extended play, but it comes together like an operatic wonder just the same. There’s an unspoken sense of ironic storytelling that starts in the title track and begins to take a dominant hold of the poetic narrative in “Still Holding My Breath.” By the time that we’re trapped in the acoustic arms of “Wait for Me,” this moodiness in the melody has become so influential over our interpretation of the lyrics that there’s no shortage of ways for us to breakdown “A Different Kind of Pain,” the closing song and, as I see it, the premier climax of the record. The musicality gets increasingly bizarre as we press on beyond the first track, and though “Still Holding My Breath” and “A Different Kind of Pain” are by no means so outside of the mainstream model that casual listeners wouldn’t be interested in their harmonies, I think that describing either of these songs (and, for that matter, the entirety of The Hardest Part) as being anything other than highly-involved listening would not only be inaccurate, but perhaps a disservice to the passion James clearly put into this music.
It’s aa slight departure from the sound that he and this project started the 2010s off with, but if you ask me, Oliver James is taking a big step in the right direction in The Hardest Part and introducing us to a side of his artistic identity that we hadn’t seen or heard before (for reasons I’m not aware of). He’s tapping into a lot of angst here that can be taken as both melancholic and rebellious depending on who’s wearing the headphones, and in an age that has emphasized the singularity concept over this kind of a dynamic, it makes his new stuff all the more spellbinding a find. Only time will tell for sure, but right now I think Oliver James belongs on any credible ‘artists to watch’ list entering 2020.