Review: Willie J Healey – Bunny

Artwork for Willie J Healey's 2023 album Bunny

Willie J Healey proves to be a survivor.

The problem with pop is that as an industry, it often eats its young.

From a small town in sleepy Oxfordshire, Willie J Healey was in his teens when he signed to a major label, a deal that led to the release of 2017’s People and The Dog – his first, and last, album for them.

Unceremoniously dropped afterward, the former boxer began to rebuild; starting back out at grassroots level, attracting a small but devoted group of fans and bonding with the likes of Idles’ Joe Talbot.

The resulting catharsis led to 2020’s Twin Heavy, an album that mined seventies’ rock with a blues-tinged edge but remained neatly contemporary.

With the singer now older and wiser, from it Songs For Joanna had all the makings of a hit, but only peaked at #59 in a lockdown decimated year where he was unable to give it the boost of live performance.

Three years on, inspiration for Bunny came partially from Willie J Healey’s friend Jamie T, who donated the drum machine which features on Thank You, a track on which they collaborated and that also helps usher in a new sound that’s laced with funk, soul and R&B. Working again with producer Loren Humphries (Florence & The Machine, Arctic Moneys), despite the stylistic pivot the whole recording process was completed in just a couple of weeks.

There is an argument this new direction reflects the contemporary success of the ingredients in public taste, but it’s obviously one thing to claim you’re being influenced by There’s A Riot Goin’ On-era Sly & The Family Stone and another thing to do it with some authenticity.

Such has been the extended time between Bunny’s announcement and its release (it arrives delayed by several months) there’s a sense of familiarity with some of pre-released material, which goes a long way to help the listener acclimate to the newly brewed sense of cool.

Thankfully, whilst Bunny will certainly keep the legions of 6 Music Dads onside, it’s also got some appealing character of its own: opener Woke Up Smiling comes armed with some gently carousing rustic vibes that frame its sunny positivity.

Anybody who has literally and metaphorically been punched in the face however will always have a degree of perspective, such that Dreams – with its personable Rhodes and brow-soothing harmonies – is an essay on the cost of ambition in a game that specialises in blunting as many of people’s as it can.

Not everything is completely smothered in good vibes only however; Morning Teeth starting with, ‘What the fuck is going on/Why should I even care’, as Healey does a more than passable impression of Alex Turner over a suitably Radio 2 arrangement.

Whilst this hardly constitutes a crime against humanity, a few of the other tracks hang around at the two-minute mark (Bumble Bee, Late Night Driving, Reprise), in form seemingly a bit more like good ideas than finished articles.

Maybe that’s a bit churlish for an artist that’s seen the light. Little Sister – recorded in a single take during a visit to New York – has plenty of redemption value, Tiger Woods comes from the temple of Sly without the need for a caddy and Black Camero is a sumptuous, slightly out of keeping but lush ballad.

The music industry can often be heard crunching on the bones of those who came to it with hope of a future. Willie J Healey boxed clever and came out on the other side – and Bunny is the sound of a man sharing the happiness without letting it go to his head.

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