Charlie Puth’s debut album Nine Track Mind always felt like a rushed attempt at capitalising on his fame from the Fast and Furious 8 track ‘See You Again’ with Wiz Khalifa, and he confirmed as much when he told Seattle Times “[Nine Track Mind] was people nudging me in a direction that I didn’t want to go in,” in July 2017.
To his credit, Puth’s hair isn’t the only thing that has grown since his debut album. In Voicenotes, he tries to move on from the love ballads. His attempt at R&B, after initially trying his hand at doo-wop, is incredibly well-produced and doesn’t feel hurried.
That is not to say that Voicenotes is a dark and brooding album (“How the hell did I I get caught up messing with these LA girls//I miss my baby”, he confesses on ‘LA Girls’). His attempt at being the next Justin Timberlake or one of the Jonas brothers seems earnest but lacks the originality that is often required to reach the next step.
The album is often interlaced with soothing strumming and Puth showing off his high falsetto but fails to garner the listener’s attention (which ironically is the name of the second track). ‘Attention’ will certainly be a hit; Puth’s relentless plugging of the song on live performances combined with the lack of a major release this summer nearly ensures that.
A rare highlight is ‘Done For Me’, which features singer-songwriter Kehlani, whose R&B influence is visible. A well-constructed crescendo, combined with Kehlani’s vocal range will be a sure-fire hit at live performances. It seems that Puth hopes to recreate the success of ‘Marvin Gaye’ from his previous album, which featured Meghan Trainor, and peaked when the two kissed after performing the song at the American Music Awards in 2015.
However, his next track ‘Patient’ immediately brings down any momentum the album carried with it, and dives into another soft ballad, going, “I’ve been taking your love, I’ve been wasting your time//But is there still a chance of me changing your mind?” Puth sounds like an overbearing boyfriend, which would explain his multitude of heartbreak hits.
A surprisingly well executed collaboration with soul and R&B stalwarts Boyz II Men in ‘If You Leave Me Now’ starts off like a Christmas carol at a service, but finds its feet with the well-balanced inclusion of the trio throughout the song, which actually shadows Puth at various points in the song.
James Taylor provides some soothing silkiness in his parts throughout ‘Change’, where Puth finally takes a break from his love affairs and tries to tackle international peace, before finally concluding the album with ‘Through It All’, laid over a signature Puth piano solo.
Sophomore albums are crucial for an artist – they prove whether surprise debut albums were a flash in the pan, or are they here to say. Unfortunately for Puth, his skills are better utilised in writing. It’s saying something when the best tracks of an album are ones with featured artists, and with the 26-year old, it’s becoming a habit (Trainor, and Selena Gomez in the previous album), which doesn’t bode well in the long run.
At least in Nine Track Mind, Puth has some guaranteed pop hits. Unless he reinvents himself, it will be difficult for him to be an established name in pop.