In one scene in the recent documentary Lewis Capaldi: How I’m Feeling Now (no apologies to Charli XCX!), the Scottish singer’s uniquely graceless manager shares his fears over the slow gestation of his act’s second album, and the apparently underwhelming demos he’s delivered thus far. “I’ve definitely put all my eggs in one basket,” the manager says, right in front of him. Even the usually unflappable Capaldi—an endearing gobshite not shy about posting Instagram videos from the toilet—looks taken aback: “He says ‘eggs in one basket’ as if I’m not here and not Lewis Capaldi whose name is on it.”

He also says it as if Capaldi isn’t evidently in the throes of a mental health crisis, weathering imposter syndrome, writer’s block, and the tightening grip of Tourette’s (which manifests in aggressive full-body twitching) as he crumples under the pressure of following up not only the UK’s biggest-selling album of 2019, but 2020 as well. The balladeer’s lovelorn debut, Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent, filled the chart gaps between Ed Sheeran albums and established Capaldi, with his tornado-strength choruses and plainspoken heartbreak, as The Boy Adele, while his lethally funny social media persona minted viral gold—precisely the sort of asset that the music industry is not about to let go quietly.

The film starts in August 2022, with Capaldi being interviewed onstage at an industry event in London. He convulses violently while giving deadpan answers about wanting to stick precisely to the formula established on his debut, because reinvention is overrated. The audience laughs along. I was there, and left haunted by the disparity of the crisis that appeared to be unfolding and the cheery (some might say venal!) business-as-usual atmosphere, which Capaldi seemed to have embraced creatively at least. But the documentary later reveals that this night proved a turning point: His parents pulled the plug and he got four months off to address his health. We revisit him two weeks back into business, conveniently feeling much better, on the cusp of a UK No. 1 single (bolstered by signed CD copies that retailed for 99 pence, unsurprisingly not mentioned), and with an album finally in the bag. Ta-da! A happy ending! Champagne corks litter EMI’s carpets.

So what magic was wrought to bring Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent to satisfactory completion? Capaldi and his co-writers have stuffed the basket with every egg they have in hopes of reminding listeners why they liked him in the first place. I cannot remember an album that suffered from such an extreme case of risk-aversion, nor demonstrated so little faith in an artist’s potential, nor any notion that their fanbase might be willing to grow with them. If anything, it shrinks his already narrow proposition. Any number of these potential bank-advert ballads sound like his debut’s “Someone You Loved” (which had one of the longest-ever climbs to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100) and it’s no mistake. When Capaldi points this out in the documentary, his manager responds: “That’s a good thing—not to be condescending but people love things that just sound the same.” Nearly every song starts gently, with Capaldi’s voice in its appealing conversational mode—a little boyish and uncertain, as if trying to reach someone—before a chorus smashes in like a wrecking ball. You can set your watch by them: “Haven’t You Ever Been in Love Before?” literally contains the sound of a ticking clock to remind you to brace for impact.

The first time, it’s a hair-raising effect—“Forget Me” is as visceral as a pleading romantic showdown outside EastEnders’ Queen Vic pub—and occasionally Capaldi steals a little nuance in there. “Wish You the Best” starts with understated immediacy as he follows a train of thought about an ex, longing to know everything about her new life, but hold the new boyfriend. Then the chorus hits: “I wanna say I miss the green in your eyes/And when I said I wish we could be friends, guess I lied,” he howls, and the sour note he lands as he stretches out that last word feels grimly true as he contemplates the gap between who he wants to be and who he feels he is.

Otherwise, near enough every song proceeds at this state of emergency. Meanwhile the ceaselessly wet, antiseptic piano proves entirely the wrong foil for a voice forever on the cusp of unraveling. There are no middle eights—songs just toggle between loud and quiet, then finish right where they started. At one point in the film, Capaldi says he wants to make the album “a more cohesive, focused body of work—it’d be nice if people listened to it that way.” Then he briefly breaks down, perhaps daunted by the task, or painfully aware of how unlikely that is given the way things are going. The sheer, incessant velocity makes the record unlistenable as a whole: It’s like watching a play in which every scene is acted as if it were the emotional climax. The inevitable choruses become unwitting punchlines.

And the torrential scale pulverizes some nice songwriting. Yes, there’s a wealth of cliché—lifeless hearts, shipwrecking storms, labored biblical metaphors—but fans come to Capaldi for that kind of unstudied romance. He has a Nashvillian way with a gentle lyrical twist and his yearning to connect is endearing. “I take her out to fancy restaurants/She takes the sadness out of me,” he sings on “Pointless” in a sad rundown of his perceived inferiorities. “Love the Hell Out of You” sweetly subverts the expression by promising to squeeze out his lover’s demons. You get a rare flash of his mischievous personality on “Heavenly Kind of State of Mind” when he declares that being with someone makes him feel like “I could run and tell the Devil to go fuck himself.” (In that sense, Lewis Capaldi reminds me of Liam Gallagher, another comic king whose wit rarely pierces his banal lyrics.)

Although the album’s thematic anchor is a thwarted romantic relationship, the defeated outlook could just as easily apply to Capaldi’s fears over his career. He worries about people changing their minds, realizing that “I’m fucking useless and full of excuses.” These fears underpin Broken’s only two properly good songs. “The Pretender” reveals the depths of Capaldi’s insecurities, whether as a lover or a performer: “So tell me who you want me to be/I can wear a million faces/’Cos I don’t like the one underneath,” he sings, and the pain in his voice is shapeshifting and ragged, rather than blasting like an alarm. The racing piano and swirling tempest of strings actually feel like they might break apart, and the effect is stirring. And the Max Martin co-write “Leave Me Slowly” totally shifts tone from soggy piano to dazzling keys right out of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” The epic mode, right down to a wibbling guitar solo, makes Capaldi’s bloodletting feel right at home. It’s a delightful surprise near the end of the album, like finding the sparkly toy in a box of stale cornflakes.

Why is there not more of this stylistic variation when it works so well? Divinely Uninspired was pretty conservative but it might as well be SZA’s SOS compared to Broken. Perhaps sticking to the formula gives Capaldi a sense of steadiness when he’s otherwise wracked with uncertainty; perhaps it’s pure commercial arse-covering on the part of his team and label. If you don’t like Capaldi, or Adele, or Sheeran, or George Ezra, or any of the hat-wearing British pop boys, you obviously aren’t going to like this either. But if it inspires anything in you, let it be anger at the industry ghouls caging their golden goose, perfectly aware that it won’t be them left with egg on their faces if this hedge-betting waste of time sinks.

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Lewis Capaldi: Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent