It has been four years since Gabrielle Aplin shot to public attention with her angelic cover of The Power of Love (Frankie Goes to Hollywood). Two albums on, the English rose now stands fully amped and eyeliner-ed, ready to prove she has thorns to be reckoned with.
First up though, the sultry voice of Hannah Grace kicked off two supporting sets with conviction. She filled the O2 with poise and confidence, followed up by the beautiful morning tones of local boy Lewis Watson. His style references the likes of Lucy Rose and Luke Sital-Singh, but what he lacks in originality he makes up for with emotive body language and real feeling. Together, the pair confidently prepared the Oxford crowd for its hostess.
Aplin is loved for her distinctively pure vocals, perfectly related by the pastel toned prettiness of debut album English Rain. Last night the old favourites were received with warmth. The pitch however, was on the fresh, bolder tracks of Light Up the Dark (2015). Of these, the lilting Coming Home is one of a select few in which the Wiltshire lass seemed genuinely at home. Translated into a live set up, Aplin’s performance was spirited, but lacked the authenticity needed to sell the new material’s bite. It’s an ambitious sophomore record that’s prioritized chart-topping success over the singer’s true voice. This time around, we just don’t believe her.
Gabrielle Aplin: The Power of Love, Official Video (2012)
We paused mid-set for a moving old-Aplin style cover of Bowie’s Space Odyssey. The Academy breathed a mournful sigh of appreciation, illuminated with planet-Earth-is-blue lighting. Well said, girl. It was a glimpse into the true depth and thoughtfulness that Aplin’s performance could have. But these flashes of rock steady brilliance only came when she wasn’t chasing them. In the light of the strobes, Aplin seemed detached from her skillful but distant band, much more at ease accompanying herself. In many ways, she’s still the 16-year-old singing Paramore songs on the classroom piano. Yes she has talent worthy of the Academy’s stage, but she doesn’t own it yet.
Returning to her English Rain roots, Aplin’s encore brought redemption. The crowd got the full-hearted performance it craved, and a rendition of Home rounded the night off to strong applause. Still, it says a lot that this last offering ended in acappella. She's just not self-assured enough to be leading a group this big, with songs this flashy. Aplin geared herself up for a big first date last night, but was revealed as a tentative ingénue. It was sweet and truly endearing in parts, but I’m not sure there’ll be a second.