James Morrison's tastes for soul - the frayed, sweaty kind - sets him apart from all the others. He's one of several British artists (Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy, James Blunt) to recently invade the U.S. pop charts.
But with his new album - Songs for You, Truths for Me, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2007 debut, Undiscovered - Morrison wanted to redefine what "soul" means to him.
"I wanted the songs to be the soul of the music," says the singer-songwriter, who headlines a sold-out show at Washington's 9:30 Club Thursday. "I just didn't want to put a two-step beat and horns on it and that be the soul."
While his studied vocal style invokes Rod Stewart and Terence Trent D'arby, Morrison seems to have taken his songwriting cues from the likes of James Taylor and Elton John. On Songs for You, the approach is couched in raucous arrangements that swell and soar. Bigger-is-better seemed to have been the working ethos this time around.
"I literally went into the studio and threw around different styles for three months," says Morrison, who was calling last week from a tour stop in San Jose, Calif. "I wanted to write songs that reflected what I went through. I wanted to be deeper."
By that, Morrison meant he dug more into his life for inspiration. The 24-year-old explores longing and heartache. On many of the new songs, his heart has been ripped out and kicked across the room. But lyrically, he doesn't seem to mind being a fool for love.
"I always wanted to hit the top and the bottom of emotions - songs that bring you down and bring you up," he says. "I just wanted the songs to be real and stand out. Love is not always amazing."
There's a weary troubadour feel to cuts such as "Save Yourself," a rousing highlight, and "You Make It Real," an open-hearted ballad. The swollen, overly polished arrangements may be a bit overbearing at times, especially toward the end of the album. But Songs for You largely achieves Morrison's purpose: to craft sturdy songs.
At 21, Morrison, who grew up in hard-knock Rugby, England, became an overnight sensation. His debut made a big splash when it was released in his native country in summer 2006. Before the CD came out in the United States during the next spring, Undiscovered had gone platinum in Britain. "It sounded like I was shouting on the first record," he says. "It was passionate, but I had to learn technique so I wouldn't hurt my voice. But I didn't want to lose the passion this time."
That "passion" still seethes on Songs for You. It's just that now Morrison has tempered some of the histrionics. His performances are earnest and bolstered by big choruses. He fares better on the up-tempo numbers, which finely showcase his energetic style. For instance, the hit single, "Broken Strings," a duet with Nelly Furtado, is a forced pop-rock ballad that doesn't represent the best of Songs for You. It's an obvious bid for a straight-ahead pop hit.
Morrison, who lives just outside of London, expanded his sonic palette on Songs for You, Truths for Me. But the passion, the soul, has deepened, he says.
"I just try to enjoy what I do. That's the only reason I do it - because I enjoy it," Morrison says. "But the feeling in the songs - that matters the most."