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26 February 2020

The contradictions of Lewis Capaldi

His brand is anchored in irony. But his music is chronically, searingly earnest.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi is one of the biggest presences in British music today. He was almost unheard of before his song “Someone You Loved” spent seven consecutive weeks at the top of the UK charts from March 2019, going on to become the biggest selling single of last year. (At the time of writing, it still sits at number seven.) Capaldi achieved five top-ten singles last year (all ballads); his song “Before You Go” was number one at the start of February 2020. At this year’s Brits, Capaldi won Best New Artist and Song of the Year, accepting the award with one hand, with a bottle of Buckfast in the other.

Capaldi is a contradiction. His brand is anchored in self-deprecating humour. Permanently sporting T shirts, messy hair and a self-described “plain face”, he posts videos of himself eating crisps in bed to his Instagram (“Lewis Calamari”) and makes a joke of posing for photos with a forced, barely-there, dead-behind-the-eyes smile. Asked how he wrote his biggest hit, he joked, “As fortune had it, my gran had just died… Your classic death: not coming back.” Every word that leaves his mouth is thickly coated in irony. 

But his music is chronically, searingly earnest. Capaldi’s rasping Glaswegian voice is all anguish, his string of successful ballads comprised of simple X Factor melodies and self-pitying lyrics. His debut album never so much as flirts with a joke; his sound relies on the kind of sincerity that would make Tom Hanks roll his eyes. To listen to his songs is to wallow in a warm bath of melodrama. 

Perhaps this paradox is the reason for his success; his team certainly seems to think it works. Though his music has a broad mainstream appeal enjoyed by both genders and a wide age-range, a TV ad campaign for the album, which aired in the run up to Christmas, saw Capaldi alone, against a white wall, deriding his own sound as a favourite of “lonely mums everywhere”.

“If you like songs that are sad and are sang by chubby guys who live with their parents and haven’t known the touch of a woman in many years, you’re gonna love it,” he says to camera. “Please fork out the money, because I still live with my mother, and she’s suffocating me.” We might not be expected to believe that the man behind the biggest-selling single of 2019 needs our pity money, but clearly we are expected to enjoy the performance – and maybe even unashamedly embrace the record as a result. As long as he’s funny, anyone can say they’re a Lewis Capaldi fan without cringing.

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy