Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.
Towards the end of After You’s penultimate track “Ancient Skin,” Jack Peñate sounds like he’s out of breath. It’s a demanding song for sure: He strains his voice singing every other “I KNOW!” on the smooth synth-pop track as he introduces soulful Chance the Rapper-esque trumpets. He’s clearly giving it his all as keyboards swirl and a gospel choir props him up.
And why wouldn’t he? It’s only been 10 years, five months and seven days since his last album, after all.
Here’s a quick refresher for those who may have forgotten who Peñate is: He burst on the scene in 2006 with lead single “Second, Minute or Hour,” a fun, upbeat song that fit into the growing British indie invasion somewhere between the scrappy and clean guitars from The Libertines and a pop sensibility closer to acts like Razorlight or even The Kooks. His debut record Matinée, released in October 2007 in the U.K. and January 2008 in the U.S., strayed a little more towards twee rock, drawing the ire of critics but rocketing up the charts across the pond. Singles “Second, Minute or Hour” and “Torn on the Platform” hit number one on the U.K. indie chart, and “Have I Been a Fool” was featured in 500 Days of Summer. In retrospect, it was an album that felt very 2008.
But then Peñate shocked everyone in 2009 with Everything Is New, a shimmering, tropical synth-pop record thousands of miles away from Matinée. It was a major step up for the London musician, a catchy pop album that felt a bit ahead of its time, accurately predicting where British rock was about to go: a bit dancier (Friendly Fires, Metronomy) while embracing electronic elements without losing a rock edge (Bombay Bicycle Club), but not afraid to get a bit weird and expansive at times (The Maccabees, Foals).
Suddenly, Peñate all but disappeared. In 2012, he uploaded “No One Lied,” a gorgeous solo guitar track armed with a stark black and white video shot in his home, to YouTube. But it bizarrely wasn’t released as a single. We heard nothing from him until he resurfaced in 2018 with a DJ mix called “A Thousand Faces” and contributed instrumentals to David Byrne’s American Utopia.
All hope of a new album seemed lost until August 2019 when he shared lead single “Prayer,” his first legitimate release in a whole decade. Full of soul, gospel choirs and a simple, distant synth line, “Prayer” felt like the logical next step after Everything Is New—not too far removed from its affecting, tropical grooves, but certainly a leveling-up of sorts. And that sound continues throughout the entirety of After You, a pop record that’s very cognizant of itself, aware of the gap between releases, but with a finger on our current musical pulse.
Take second track “ Loaded Gun,” for instance. Peñate opens the simple ballad with the record’s most self-aware lyric: “I want the world to know my name / So I survive / And there is nothing in my way / Except my cruel mind.” His voice is front and center, lamenting what could’ve become of his once-budding career. He has even mentioned this in interviews: “You release a record, and you’re 21 or whatever age, and you carry on, and you pretty much stay there. Not much changes. That was my biggest fear; of the no progression—in personality, in the ability to write.”
Every song on After You feels like it’s been labored over for years, if not the last 10. The rumbling bass of “Cipralex,” the Eastern-infused strings of “Round and Round” and the dancefloor aesthetic of “Murder” all showcase a Peñate who’s eager to experiment. But he still sounds like himself all the way through, never throwing an Everything Is New-sized sonic curveball like the one that followed Matinée’s overwhelming twee-ness. The lyrics cast quite a bit of self-doubt (“Got lost trying to be what I’m not / Thought it’d bring me peace,” he sings on “Prayer”), but he sounds confident throughout, allowing therapeutic dancefloor fillers to absolve his sins.
There wasn’t any real doubt that Peñate’s eventual third album wouldn’t be at least somewhat good, but it’s still a bit shocking that it even exists at all: Fans had all but given up on hearing another Jack Peñate song. Though excitement for After You would’ve probably been stronger five years ago—and burying the release the day after Thanksgiving didn’t help—the record is easily his best to date, a wonderful pop album that continues to impress with each passing song. The meticulous nature of After You’s dreamy and frequently cathartic soundscapes suggests Peñate spent years perfecting these 10 songs, maybe ever since Everything Is New was released. That’s a long time to work on a record, but after finally—finally—hearing the finished product, it’s obvious the wait was worth it.