Let’s get the elephant out of the room first and foremost—the production value of Paul Maged’s studio music thus far is serviceable at best. Diamonds & Demons was a diamond in the rough, and his sophomore album, Light Years Away, does little to abandon the 1990s garage-band-on-a-homemade-cassette-recording rawness that the artist has more or less become known for. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you that this was an utterly indie effort, you really don’t need to look further than Maged’s intriguing (we hope) self-made album cover.
The real quality here comes from the nature of Maged’s songwriting. Whilst his recording efforts may come across as amateurish, taking the songs for what they reveal the mind of an impressively chamelonesque songwriter mostly just in need of more experience under his belt.
Mostly billed as a rock and roll artist, he certainly maintains a fiery persona throughout the record’s seven tracks that can be called memorable if not potentially too on-the-nose. ‘PC Police’ in particular may rile some feathers, and although that’s the intended point, some might come to wonder from its in-your-face nature just where on the political spectrum Maged stands. It can, however, be interpreted as a more universal statement that transcends rigid politicism, though that is more or less speculation at this point.
What is there, though, is structurally sound. Questionable moral standards of the opening track aside, Maged does prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a versatile songwriter capable of writing more than his fair share of earworms. When he isn’t producing a straight-up rock ditty, he’s infusing country, soul, electronic and blues influences into various other tracks.
There’s blatant talent here that, with the right production, can be taken to great new, even considerable heights. An entirely capable songwriter and performer (his vocals have a pristine, throaty quality that harks back to the heartland rockers of the 80s and 90s), from there, all that Maged will have to find past that is himself. It has to be said that even beyond production value, while each song is scintillating enough to warrant an ear in its own right, Light Years Away feels like a collection of demos without a solid base to center itself upon.
Who is Paul Maged? It seems like every song is inspired by someone or something, but not on a personal basis. Whether it be Michael Jackson, Muse, or Mumford & Sons, it feels like, although Maged’s songs are solid in themselves, he doesn’t know how to sell them with real heart.
The lone exception on this album is his tribute to Chris Cornell, who must have been a real hero to him, with ‘Like a Stone’. ‘PC Police’ has its moments, too, though it feels undersold. If he’s going to sell a song like that, he needs to take a hard stance with its lyrics instead of leaning on sarcasm as a crutch to pretend its revolutionarily political.
Yet, if Maged can channel the genuine, heartfelt sentiment that he brought to ‘Like a Stone’ and sell it across an entire album, then we’ll be talking. Otherwise, Light Years Away is a collection of pretty melodies, impressive genre-hopping, and scintillating thoughts without much of a soul. He is an impressive vocalist and has the makings of a great songwriter this side of Ike Reilly.
At this rate, though, we’re catching his baby steps with these records and not a confident, concerted stride forward. Yet, while it feels more amateur hour than next rock icon now, stranger things have happened. While the work here is rough, it’s also raw, and you can feel an inkling of passion beneath it all. If Maged follows his heart and doesn’t get too much into his own head, then he may just be golden.