Sam Ryder’s brief career has run on surprises: first, posting covers on TikTok, where this sweet, bearded hippie showcased a falsetto so astonishing it grabbed the attention of Alicia Keys. Then, at Eurovision this May, where he shocked a defeated nation by almost winning and, moreover, doing so with a brilliant song, Space Man. A cosmic ballad with touches of Elton and Bowie (and Harry Styles’s similarly inspired Sign of the Times) that made great use of Ryder’s vocal power, its clever, moving lyrics likened the isolation of heartbreak to being stuck in orbit. To boot, this effusively joyful former wedding singer was apparently entirely untouched by cynicism.
It’s a crushing inevitability, then, that Ryder’s debut album conveys all the limited imagination of the British pop industry trying to capitalise on a viral moment. Although Space Man’s co-writers contributed to several other tracks, that song’s elegance is nowhere to be found among a litany of cliches and self-help guff so toothless it makes Ed Sheeran look like Nick Cave. Even basic sense can be hard to come by: Tiny Riot, with its budget Rag’n’Bone Man boom, advises us to “turn the pouring rain to the wave of a tiny riot” and suggests that “if butterflies can use their wings to turn the wind to hurricanes / You and I can break the chains”. More baffling still is the entirely out-of-character This Time, a bitter, jaunty up-yours to some big shot who “lost your trust fund and that trophy wife”.
The anonymity of the production is staggering: there is music primed to soundtrack summer barbecue ads (the whooping Somebody), sad charity ads (the muted roar of OK, which is about, you know, being OK), John Lewis Christmas ads (the wibbling All the Way Over). Sure, Ryder is a family-friendly pop star with a self-professed allergy to “cool”, but George Ezra pulls off this sort of crowd-pleasing bonhomie with far greater sincerity and warmth. Ryder’s most distinctive quality, that leonine howl, is slathered on like cheap cologne: he barks and warbles as if his life depends on it.
Surprisingly, he shines mostly strongly in the softer songs: the lovely Whirlwind has something of the silvery haze of Taylor Swift’s Folklore, Ryder’s voice fluttering like a sycamore leaf as he sings about anxiety and devotion. The waltzing Lost in You is similarly vulnerable, about the butterfly effects that lead to love. Otherwise, There’s Nothing But Space, Man! feels like an unfortunately apposite title: with little else here to recommend it, it’s a gaping black hole that has swallowed its creator’s natural star power.