Singer-songwriters – today’s crop, certainly – tend to attempt universality through earnestness. Not so Gilbert O’Sullivan, whose remarkable “Alone Again Naturally” is determinedly low-key, the small thoughts of a small man as he contemplates ending his own small life. Off-handedly sung, it ambles along and finds a chorus hook in much the same way as a man strolling on a beach might absent-mindedly pocket a nice pebble. It’s like a pop equivalent of an Alan Bennett monologue, its power coming in the sad accretion of detail.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get to number one, and “Clair” did. O’Sullivan sings “Clair” in the same way – a distracted interior monologue – but it’s a far weaker record, one of those cutesy love songs to small children that the British charts used to turn up regularly. To its credit “Clair” doesn’t sound creepy now and improves when it drops the is-it-a-romantic-song conceit and just talks about the delightful hassles of babysitting, but the overdubbed giggle at the end gives the game away – intelligent touches or no, we’re firmly in greetings card territory, and O’Sullivan’s gentle delivery lands just on the wrong side of winsome this time.
(It’s fair to say, for any fans of “Clair”, that this whole area is a blindspot for me – even as a parent now myself I can hardly think of any songs about children that I like. It’s quite possible that this record does as good a job as can be done here.)