Is Alex Clare a singer or a song?
In October this bearded Brit reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 with “Too Close,” a dubstep-inflected power ballad originally released on YouTube in early 2011. Co-produced by the cool-hunting hitmaker Diplo, the track took off after it was featured in a Microsoft commercial that aired heavily on TV during coverage of the London Olympics.
But take a look at Clare’s peak-week company on the chart – Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Pink -- and you might wonder if he just went along for the ride. Though he’s sold more than 2 million copies of an almost instantly identifiable single, the man remains a cipher.
That disconnect is partly why Clare was at the Fonda Theatre on Thursday night, kicking off a brief North American tour with a sold-out concert that had been advertised on flyers describing him as “the breakout artist behind the hit song ‘Too Close.’” (Clare will return to L.A. on Dec. 9 for KROQ-FM’s Almost Acoustic Christmas concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre.)
Pop stars are inseparable from their brands today, so this show was an opportunity for Clare to deepen our understanding of who he is and what he stands for – indeed, to initiate that understanding in the first place. And when he sauntered onstage in a rumpled button-down shirt and a jaunty flat cap, there was an encouraging little ripple of anticipation.
Fronting a three-piece band that included a rather athletic-minded keyboard player, Clare opened with “Relax My Beloved,” one of the tunes that aren’t “Too Close” on his debut album, “The Lateness of the Hour.”
The keyboardist was pulling fat, harshly textured bass tones from his instrument while Clare went in what seemed to be the opposite direction, growling like Joe Cocker (or at least Ray LaMontagne) about trying to still his racing heart. He did something similar in “Tight Rope,” over a crisp martial drum beat, and “Humming Bird,” which throbbed with the woozy menace of dub reggae.
By this point in his 75-minute set Clare’s shirt was fairly soaked through with sweat, proof that he was putting a lot of effort into the beginnings of a potentially rich goal: unshackling the moody interior of LaMontagne or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon from the lonely-lumberjack sonics those singers favor.
His approach seemed to share some brainwaves with that of Ellie Goulding, whose recent “Halcyon” album effectively clears a space for the singer-songwriter in electronic dance music.
But then Clare stalled out. The songs grew dull and blurred together, including covers of “Damn Your Eyes” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” He stood static behind the microphone, looking toward his feet as his man on the synthesizer drew more attention with fist pumps and karate chops. Whatever tension Clare had built up dissipated almost entirely.
It was as though he had lost the nerve (or the know-how) to reveal himself just as he came close to doing it. During “Treading Water” he even acted as his own censor, substituting “mess things up” for the more strongly worded phrase he uses on his album.
Of course, the energy picked up again with “Too Close,” the first few notes of which transformed the audience into a sea of glowing smart phones. But if that meant Clare had momentarily grown bigger than his song, it wasn’t by much. By early Friday morning the performance had become just another scrap of digital video.
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