A few years ago, whilst working in an especially depressing call centre, I was subjected to a staff training day. Amidst the myriad absurdities, in amongst the management-speak and exercises in which my colleagues and I shouted company policies at each other for no discernible reason, one speech was given which contained an element of truth. It concerned the elusive 'x-factor', that special quality which would elevate us above our fellows and transform us into smooth-talking model employees. A nonsensical term to use in the context of that workplace - any failure to sparkle on the part of me and my colleagues had more to do with being forced to continually justify indefensible company policies to rightly aggrieved customers - but wholly applicable to pop music, as the rise of the ubiquitous talent show of the same name has demonstrated. The lack of an x-factor is what lets down disco-house act Hercules and Love Affair's Blue Songs. It's a solid album, a 'B'-grade album, but no more; it lacks that special something which would transform it from the equivalent of a mid-table Championship team into a side pushing for Premier League honours.
It's tempting to explain this lack of sparkle in terms of the absence of the star names who helped make their self-titled debut so impressive. There's no Tim Goldsworthy on production duties, and more tellingly there's no Antony Hegarty, the sublimely gifted vocalist who lit up that album's best songs. That's certainly part of the story, but there's a further problem: the group's mastermind, Andy Butler, simply hasn't written as many top-drawer songs this time around. Butler has tinkered with the seventies disco sound of the first record, striking out in a number of new directions, embracing eighties Chicago house music ('My House', amongst other tracks) and contemplative balladry ('Boy Blue'), but he winds up looking like a jack of all trades. There are no horrendous missteps, but neither are there any songs which provide that x-factor.
There's plenty to admire about 'Painted Eyes', with its funky bass and dramatic strings; the moment the jokey chorus to 'My House' ('my house is in order') cuts through its burbling electronics is a great demonstration of Butler's talent, and 'Boy Blue', with its combination of delicate guitar work and subtle synths, is certainly effective; but none of these songs trigger the adrenaline rush of earlier work like 'Blind' and 'Hercules Theme'. This is a shame, especially as it's possible to imagine how the absence of famous guest stars could have encouraged Taylor to perfect the form of anonymous-but-universal, emotionally engaged dance music he has specialised in. Instead, Blue Songs is a minor disappointment.