It’s a marketing team’s nightmare: Quinn Sullivan is a child prodigy who is about to grow up.
A talented young blues guitarist already a decade into a recording career, Sullivan has performed with Clapton! and BB King! (and some other people) at the Hollywood Bowl! and Madison Square Gardens! (and some other places). This is his third album! His mentor is the great Buddy Guy! Here’s the Unique Selling Point – ready? – Sullivan is only 17 years old.
But next year he’s 18 and they can’t play the ‘kid-with-the-guitar’ card forever. So they’ve checked the marketing handbook. It’s time to “reposition the offering”.
First, the image: the cover of Midnight Highway (because he’s allowed to stay up late now, do you see?) does not reveal his handsome but still boyish face. It does (assuming it’s him) allow you to see his adult-looking rear end wrapped in Levi’s. They’ve surrounded him with top session players and Producer. He’s co-written three of the songs. A Beatles cover version has been carefully chosen to showcase his virtuosic guitar whilst appealing to the widest possible demograph.
So the ducks are in a row, but what about the music? The guy is talented, deserves a chance, and wants to be ‘taken seriously as an artist’, so let’s strip away the hype and see what’s left. Hmm… the six-year old prodigy that played live on Ellen, Conan and Oprah, was undeniably impressive. Sadly, when he’s up against his own reputation, the adult Quinn can’t compete.
Unsurprisingly his voice has broken since his first record, but it’s still way too young for the blues. On the title track he is a dead ringer for World Party’s Mark Wallinger. His voice is better suited to the lighter pop songs where he can break out a sweet falsetto without needing to emulate Muddy Waters. Sadly he’s developed a mild case of the condition Mariah Carey struggles with: uncontrollable Melisma (Look it up. All the kids have it now. It’s a pandemic).
The guitar playing is skilful but, on too many of these songs, it’s the only thing worth listening to: She Gets Me is bloody awful, but has one, no two, maybe three, blistering solos. Generally the songwriting is uninspired but Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming is pleasant pop in the mould of Hanson, with a sharp, quirky little solo.
The tension between the maturity of his guitar and the lightness of his voice is an issue throughout the album. This is embodied in the tracks Crazy Into You where he tries to be raunchy, and Lifting Off when he tries to be funky. The guitar convinces but it’s like listening to two different artists with no chemistry, rather than one in harmony with himself. He seems to have got it just about right on the unpretentious and stroppy Rocks.
Like all great blues guitarists, Quinn Sullivan finds himself at a Crossroads. Should he dump the pop star aspirations and carve out a respectable living as a very good guitarist with a so-so voice, playing the music he loves with his heroes? Or does he hire some really good songwriters, and try to compete with Beiber and Kanye in the savage, selfish world of pop stardom where, ironically, the youth he is currently trying to obscure is at a premium.
I think it’s time to grow up.
Quinn Sullivan’s album, Midnight Highway, is released by Provogue on 24 March 2017