When English singer/songwriter Mabel—who has been described by many as the next Dua Lipa—released her single “Don’t Call Me Up” earlier this year, I was totally prepared to jump on the bandwagon. On that track in particular, her vocals soar, the glossy production makes you want to dance, and the lyrics that celebrate dismissing negativity makes you want to shout them at the top of your lungs. Her sassy lyrics and attitude left me eagerly waiting for more, since the world needs more sassy but bold bops like that. I often forget that highly anticipating something often leads to the opposite of what you want. Prior to the release of her full-length debut album High Expectations, Mabel had given us that and more. But what she ended up doing was reminding us that sometimes the end result will be better when we in fact lower our expectations.
High Expectations arrives just as Mabel’s latest single “Mad Love” has been reaching the Top 10, and “Don’t Call Me Up” continues to climb the charts nearly eight months after its release (and rightfully so). The Dua Lipa comparisons should be taken as nothing but a compliment, since—if we discount Ed Sheeran—Lipa has been one of the only British pop singers to generate an international following in the last few years. “Don’t Call Me Up” could easily be the sassy and bold cousin to the equally fun-loving “New Rules.” High Expectations was clearly crafted to follow the success of the former, since it is flooded with overly glitzy production and auto-tuned hooks. And everyone knows I have nothing against auto-tuned hooks, but in this case, most of the songs sound incredibly overproduced and impersonal. The album also definitely falls more on the R&B side, but it’s also not unique enough to not be considered a pop album—in a strange way that makes High Expectations hard to classify.
Nothing on High Expectations jumps out quite in the way “Don’t Call Me Up” still does whenever you hear it on the radio, which is most definitely the album’s biggest disappointment. But that’s also not to say the album contains pleasurable filler, either: if the inability to come up with another hit single that resonates the same way “Don’t Call Me Up” does is the album’s biggest disappointment, its biggest failure is its inability to establish Mabel with any sort of personality. There’s a lot of catchy overproduction on songs like “Bad Behaviour” and “We Don’t Say…” that makes tracks like those stand out, merely because they’re earworms, but other songs like “FML,” “Selfish Love,” “Trouble,” and “Put Your Name on It” don’t offer anything fresh or original in any sense of the word.
Been there, done that doesn’t even feel like the appropriate phrase, since it feels like most of the lyrics and production on High Expectations are so unoriginal that there isn’t any adjective or phrase to accurately describe it. Even “OK (Anxiety Anthem),” the album’s most personal offering whose lyrics contain the mantra that it’s OK to not be OK, also comes across as unoriginal and impersonal when a multitude of current pop singers are also crafting poignant ballads and bops about the ups and downs of mental health in our modern times—and Mabel’s attempt feels rather glib. In the Spotify age of music where it is simultaneously very easy and very difficult to make an impact in pop music, a sense of personality and originality are the base requirements. And Mabel delivers none of that on her debut studio album. Alexis Petridis from The Guardian put it best: “There’s a weird disjunction between [Mabel’s] lyrics, which are big on telling you what a caution-to-the-winds handful she is, and the music that supports them, which sticks pretty fast to the well-made pop-R&B playbook: ‘I’m not a people pleaser,’ she sings on ‘Bad Behaviour,’ over a backing that’s clearly intent on pleasing as many people as possible.”
Even though Mabel received songwriting credit on every song on High Expectations, it still feels as though she may have another shot at establishing herself with a more unique personality and a sense of originality in the future. As much as there are many artists who deliver critically acclaimed and era-defining debut studio albums, there are also many others who need an album or two before they find their footing. Shania Twain’s debut studio album from 1993 flopped horrendously and is largely forgotten in comparison to her second album, the indeed era-defining The Woman in Me. There may still be space and time for Mabel to mimic a similar transition, where she can rise above the overproduction and unoriginality of her debut album that feels as though it was crafted for the purpose of “selling out” (as many debut albums by women are made to do). The near future may seem secure for Mabel, as any number of tracks from High Expectations could be released as singles. But only time will tell if she has the ability to transcend selling out and playing the game, since it is those artists who come to be remembered in the long term.
Jeffrey’s favorites from High Expectations: “Bad Behaviour,” “Don’t Call Me Up,” “We Don’t Say…,” and “Mad Love”