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James Crowley calls his own bluff on “Play To Win”

28 June 2024, 10:00 | Written by Steve Forstneger

What could be heard as a tragic love song is actually a letter from the singer/songwriter to himself

Misheard or mis-transcribed lyrics will always vex songwriters and fans alike. A blood vessel bursts in Bruce Springsteen’s forehead each time “Born In The USA” is used patriotically, while REM quit trying to explain that “The One I Love” is not a love song. Yet there’s a certain satisfaction when the shadows of a given track are illuminated and reveal so much more. “Unknown (To You)” by Jacob Banks, for instance, is a perfectly devastating tale of abandoned love that takes on renewed gravity when you learn it’s about Banks’ father.

With “Play To Win,” London-based James Crowley initially manages to convey the wreckage of a bond that has exploded midair. The pair lie wounded and Crowley turns his head to mourn, “I hate that I made you lose your mind.” And then it turns out he’s talking to himself.

“Often, we’re our own harshest critic,” he explains. “I know that’s true for me. I wanted to try to make peace with the standards I set myself as a man, as a human. ‘Play to Win’ was a space for me to think about how I meet myself with more compassion and really sit in the discomfort of my own expectations.” It’s an exceptional assessment that muses at the deceptions and cons people use to justify their self-abuse. Clacking percussion replicates the mind’s industry and machinations, while the gloss of reverb covers it with a shiny veneer.

Starting before the pandemic, Crowley has uploaded a handful of singles and two EPs. The most recent – last year’s Vapour Trails – continued his exploration of various cyphers (psychedelia, harmonies, retro reverb) as well as the vocal similarity he shares with Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon). “Play To Win,” however, bears a strong resemblance to EP-closer “Keep On Keeping On” and its finger-picked echoes of José González.

Crowley says that he sought assistance from Mike Horner (Def Havana, Hot Wax, Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand) to help him develop his kaleidoscope of sound. “Working with Mike was transformative for my sound as an artist. He found the points of tension in the song and really took me into a territory I didn’t know existed for me musically,” Crowley says. “The whole process has been a kind of exhale and it’s helped me let go of some of my anxieties around showing up fully as an artist.”

He shows up, even if you don’t realise it’s him at first.

"Play To Win" is out now. Find James Crowley on Instagram.

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