There’s a word that has followed Jamie Cullum around ever since his triple-platinum 2003 release, Twentysomething, turned him into the biggest-selling British jazz artist ever. At 39, as he returns with his eighth album, he’s taking ownership of it. Taller is the title of the new collection and the first single, a towering song built on a mighty bass riff over which he sings: “I wish I was taller/I wish I was wiser/So I can stand next to you.”
It’s not just about physical stature, of course, much as the celebrity mags enjoy printing photos of the contrast between Cullum and his wife of nine years, the author and former model Sophie Dahl. “They say we don’t belong in a traditional sense/But we know we’re as solid as a sky-high fence,” he goes on to sing.
“I’ve invited myself to be asked those questions: ‘Do you really want to be taller? is it a problem for you?’ Clearly it isn’t, but it was a useful image to talk about the need to grow as you get older,” he explains. “A lot of my process, these last few years, has been about trying to grow into a person who meets someone else emotionally. What does it really mean to meet someone shoulder to shoulder?”
Taller was produced with Troy Miller, who has worked with Emeli Sandé and Laura Mvula but is probably still best known as the drummer for Amy Winehouse – she supported Cullum at his early concerts. The album also includes Mankind, a gospel song that explores faith and spirituality, and Life is Grey, a gradually building ballad about the lack of nuance in our conversations today, especially online.
The monumental ballad Drink, as one of the first songs to be completed to his complete satisfaction, set the tone for the album overall. “Musically, it feels like quite a dour song for a bit, and then you have this moment where the chords just rise up rise up into something that feels hopefully very euphoric. When I listened to the song, I really felt something. It felt really truthful. I thought I needed to write more songs that feel as good as this one.”
The whole will leave the listener convinced that these are his strongest songs, and feeling that they know him a lot better, too. On the delicate closing song, Endings are Beginnings, he sings, “I write to learn what I’m thinking.” That’s true now more than ever.
“I think in the past, I’ve reached for music as an escape route. It’s been very helpful for me to avoid that this time, to sit with something first, to be present and actually take in how it feels. It’s more honest, because I experienced it first rather than shoehorning it into a song,” he says. “I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve done, and that’s a good feeling.”