Puma Blue is 25-year-old South Londoner, singer/songwriter Jacob Allen. He once described his moniker as an “imagined character who is a half washed-up drunk, half big cat, just slumped in a barstool and reeking of whiskey”. This “crooner stereotype” image may have understandably led to a lot of the music press classing Allen’s sound like jazz. However, Allen does not wish to be put into a box with regards to any particular genre, detailing the various other influences that went into forming his musical style.
Raised by musician parents, music has been a huge part of Allen’s life, and he can recall early memories of long car journeys spent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Police, Pink Floyd and far more besides. For his seventh birthday, his parents bought him drum lessons and soon he was forming bands with his school friends. He then started to migrate to the guitar, which gave him an outlet for the swirling songs around his head.
Through his teenage years and by the time he was at university, Allen listened to Jeff Buckley (who he cites as a major musical influence), Radiohead and Bjork. He began putting on DIY shows with his friends around South London. The pull was to perform the songs he was writing and have them out there, being listened to. His music, a bluesy blend of soul, RnB and yes, - jazz was introspective yet open and honest and quickly reached a wider audience.
Since childhood, Allen had had insomnia, which would explain the hazy, late-night “voicemail ballads” of the early EP releases that propelled him to prominence. 2017’s Swum Baby and 2018’s Blood Loss earnt him a reputation as a chronicler of unrequited love and turmoil. Here was a young artist not afraid to show vulnerability in his songwriting with emotional intimacy at the centre of his work. Since then he has also released two singles and a stripped-back live album and has established himself as one of the UK’s most vital new talents, quietly amassing over 50 million streams in the process and selling out shows from London to LA and Paris to Tokyo. Now he’s set to build upon his growing underground acclaim by releasing his long-awaited debut album In Praise of Shadows on February 5th via Blue Flowers.
Wistful, ripples of synth and guitar open up “Sweet Dreams” – an ode to letting go and moving on. Allen’s falsetto vocal particularly heartfelt and fragile: “Oh does it get better?/Cos darling, nothing feels right”. The track is smooth and silky, evoking images of warm summer cocktail evenings with laid-back percussion. “Cherish” is a bittersweet reflection of lost love as Allen laments: “I never learnt to cherish her” against a hazy, hypnotic backdrop of electric drum beats, twinkling guitar riffs, steady bass and soft vocal sighs.
“Velvet Leaves” is one of the most personal and honest songs on the album. Propelled by a crisp hip-hop beat and reverb-drenched murmurs, the track explores an incident that still leaves Allen near panic attacks today. “In the summer of 2015, my sister attempted suicide. It was a lot to process personally and for us as a family,” he said. “I always wanted to deal with it in a song, but I never had the language, lyrically or musically, to grapple with such a complex issue. Then last year, I realised I finally had a way of dealing with that. “I’d like to think it ended up being a hopeful song, about the beauty of the way she got through it, and we all got through it. But there are definitely elements of the song which are just about how dark that veil is”. This is certainly true of the heartfelt lyrics which articulately capture the desperation and helplessness of the situation that lay before him: “Gotta stay strong for the little one, who found you in your room /Gotta stay strong for our Mumma who would take the blame however true / Into the room in which you threatened to depart / Damn, it was so hard to let you go that night / When we nearly couldn’t choose/ I broke down outside the room”.
The accompanying video draws a parallel between the song's subject and the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Orpheus journeys “through the veil “ to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. It has a contemporary twist with Allen cast as a downcast Orpheus- like character reflecting on a failed attempt to bring his Eurydice (here re-imagined as his sister) back from beyond.
“Already Falling” is a provocative, love-laden listen. Drenched in drowsy drum beats, Allen’s vocal is sensual and spacious with woozy saxophone notes whilst the sublime “Sheets” is worthy of repeated listens.
The start is evocative of old, cine- film images with swells of orchestral strings adding to the cinematic ambience – not surprising to discover then that the entire track ( apart from the vocals) is a sample from Allen’s favourite film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. It’s really beautiful and captivating. Despite the up-tempo flickers of drum beats and fast percussion, “Oil Slick” is a song about depression. The lyrics are about feeling numb and cutting your feelings off from everyone: “Cos these bones have turned my blood black on the inside/Just like oil slick on my mind/Shot these veins up with this liquid liquor darkside/Just like oil slick in my mind”.
The blend of the dark lyrics with the upbeat, cymbal clashes is clever. The song is like a musical chameleon, with its pace slowing down halfway through but only for an unexpected brief moment before flurries of strings and saxophone add suitable momentum towards the end with ( as it turns out) hopeful lyrics from Allen: “But you made me feel on the inside/Yes you made me feel alright”.
Allen is adept at switching up his vocal tone and pitch to suit the mood, and this is really evident on “Is It Because” – a shimmery shoegaze song about unrequited love. The heartache is openly revealed on the opening line: “Why won’t you stay with me, and why won’t you wait with me?” With gentle harp strings and ambient echoey synths and those androgynous vocals, the track wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cigarettes After Sex album. Rich and beautiful orchestral sounds float tenderly over his vocal enveloping the song with an intoxicating heartbeat.
In “Bath House”, the saxophone patiently waits in the shadows for most of the song before becoming the star player instrumentally - adding smoke and heat to the floating atmospheres, whilst closing track “Super Soft” is all fluted sounds and gilded guitar strings - wonderfully wistful and reminiscent of the opening guitar riff on Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart”. It seems a fitting final track as Allen sings tenderly: “If we could be still just for a minute” as we find ourselves currently having to do that very thing – of allowing our feelings to hurt, to ache and finally to accept a situation as those guitar strings reverse introspectively at the end.
In Praise of Shadows is an impressive debut. Allen has demonstrated that he can make lush soundscapes effortlessly blending urban sensuality with soulful, sensitive vocals. The album is ambitious with 14 songs - some tracks can feel a little repetitive in sound. Having said that, there is still plenty of good stuff here, and Allen is proof that in the hands of a skilful songwriter and musician, a personal truth can be universally felt.