x-Sugababes are in danger of becoming as plentiful as ex-members of the Fall, but Siobhan Donaghy, the waif-like, flame-haired original member of the sassy trio, ought to stand more than a passing chance of achieving something outside of the group. Four years ago she released a debut solo album which suggested serious potential in her young voice for vulnerable, gossamer pop, but the intervening time has allowed perhaps only four songs from that set to remain impressive. Ghosts, her second outing, takes further steps towards transforming her from chrysalis to butterfly, but it’s still not nearly enough.
Largely produced and co-written by James Sanger, whose work with Keane and Dido suggests he’s more rent-a-programmer rather than bona fide muse, Ghosts is perhaps more consistent than Revolution in Me but the highs, with one exception, stretch our heroine no further than where she was way back when. Indeed some songs, like “There’s a Place,” are almost a step backwards to Sugababes-ballad territory, with string arrangements that sometimes suggest something wonderful but the song not quite able to escape the twinkling syrup. Lead single “Don’t Give It Up” and the surging “So You Say” achieve an admirable state of blissful, catchy symphonic pop, but “Medevac” pushes things a step too far into the chorus while “Make It Right” is trippy and forced when it should be dreamlike and easy.
Too often Siobhan’s remarkable voice (somewhere between Aimee Mann, Liz Fraser, and Kate Bush), delicate songwriting, and burgeoning understanding of her own aesthetic are let down by over-eager production or a sloppy lyric; it’s no accident that the best song presented here is the indecipherable backwards beauty of the closing title number, which, alongside the preceding “Halcyon Days,” aligns Siobhan more with Cocteau Twins than Rachel Stevens, aspirations much more in keeping with her capabilities.
Saying that the lyrics are sometimes sub-par might be slightly disingenuous on my part though, as much of the lyrical content of Ghosts could easily be interpreted as dealing with a serious and possibly long-term depression—“Coming Up for Air” and “Make It Right” would be harrowing if stripped of the maximalist arrangements and made into personal, confessional moments of intimacy.
So what should Siobhan do to make a better record? Finding some quality collaborators would be a start—you don’t find Kate Bush hanging out with Danton Supple. Being remixed by Patrick Wolf suggests that she knows the spheres she ought to be moving within. Taking her eyes off the elusive specter of popular success and stepping away from the demands and ‘advice’ of a major label, especially one as hapless as EMI, would also be a good move, almost certainly allowing Siobhan to find herself immersed in something absolutely incredible instead of merely “good.” In the meantime Ghosts is adequate holding material, but she could, and should, do much, much better.