Published May 23, 2018Despite a 2016 setback when a laptop containing much of his new album was stolen, Oxford, UK-based Hugo Manuel (known professionally as Chad Valley) has bounced back commendably with 2018's gorgeous Imaginary Music.
Rather than bitterly working to recreate those lost tracks, Manuel opted to pursue a fresh artistic direction, consciously adopting a more timeless pop approach as opposed to his usual autobiographical style. The result is an immediately engaging and ultimately rewarding album that should please fans of refined electronic pop everywhere.
What's immediately striking is Manuel's voice, which is as high in the mix as ever. Liquid smooth and clear as a bell, his controlled and restrained falsetto often recalls Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant — a worthy lodestar if ever there was one. In terms of instrumentation, Manuel continues to mine the '80s for his synth touchstones, but they don't define the album, and things never sound obvious or parodic; it's a well-balanced mix of old and new.
Indeed, aside from a forgettable, for-padding-purposes intro, and "Unknown Ballad" (which sounds like it dates from earlier than the rest of the album), everything here is consistently excellent — the production is clean and crystalline, the instrumentation lush and the melodies (vocal or otherwise) memorable and well-constructed.
Fate works in mysterious ways, and it's a good bet that the forced restart Manuel suffered in 2016 ultimately led to a more refined and coherent collection of songs — there's a freshness and immediacy to Imaginary Music that's very appealing. Whatever phantom album hovers in the background though, this one should easily find its way to the fore of your playlist. (Paper Bag)