Midway into Bleu’s fourth disc, the mundanely titled Four (The Major Label), as I listened to the sweetly poppy “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” I found myself thinking back to the first time I heard Nilsson Shmilsson and “The Moonbeam Song.” I remembered my double-take back in the early seventies when the song’s lyrics first sliced through its gorgeously crooned and orchestrated sound and I went, “Did he just sing ‘bits of crap’ in that song?” Having put the Bleu disc into my car’s CD player without checking the track titles, I had a similar reaction: “Didn’t he just sing ‘It’ll bite you in the ass’?”
The Nilsson comparison proves apt in more ways than one: like Harry, Bleu (a.k.a. William James McAuley III) has written tunes for teenybopper idols (with the former, it was the Monkees; with the mutton-chopped one, it’s the Jonas Brothers) and displayed an affinity on his own discs for addictively hooky tunes carrying bruised and occasionally philosophical lyrics. Both pop-rockers have a love for early r-&-b: with Shmilsson it was Ray Charles and the Crescent City; for Bleu, it’s horn-y Memphis soul. Neither artist is afraid to dip into schmaltz — Four contains a track (“How Blue”) that sounds like it could’ve been pulled off a Bread album — though, thankfully, that predilection has been kept to a minimum on this release.
To these ears “Blue” is the only skippable track on Four. The rest proves poppishly addictive. “Dead in the Mornin’” is a compelling gospel track where the singer imagines skipping out on his credit card bills and willing all his possessions to friends and listeners; “In Love with My Lover” is a soulful horn-backed ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Otis Blue; “I’ll Know It When I See It” is a power poppy expression of cautious optimism, while “Everything Is Fine” (co-written with Jellyfish alum Roger Joseph Manning Jr. — make up your own lineage joke, if you must) has the lo-fi melodiousness of pre-Wings McCartney. Could do without having to wait four frigging minutes before getting to hear the bonus track, “My Own Personal Jesus,” another gripping horn-drenched number — in part because its lyrical consideration of faith and the difficulty holding onto same ties so much of the album together.
There are regular reflections on the transience of life on this disc — even the anthemic “B.O.S.T.O.N.” contains a spoken break with a eulogy for our hero — which could be reflective of Bleu’s prior too-brief experiences with major label-dom (see 2003’s Redhead). Reportedly, the singer raised the money for this release on his own label by soliciting money from fans on the Internet. A testament to pop willfulness: Everything Is Fine, indeed.