Nobody wants to be known as the Wimpmaster General, but James Blunt certainly wore that mantle last summer, when his unforgettable (no matter how hard you tried) ''You're Beautiful'' commandeered the airwaves. His alternately accomplished and cloying 2005 debut, Back to Bedlam, sold 11 million copies worldwide. That led to the Brit's appearance on a recent Billboard cover alongside the headline ''How His New Album Will Make Soft-Rock History,'' which is a little like damning somebody with fey praise. A less confident artist might have tried to contest his wussy image by crafting a tougher and faster follow-up. Not Blunt, whose sophomore effort is, if anything, even quieter. There's something almost punk rock about his steadfast refusal to rock.
All the Lost Souls' leadoff single, ''1973,'' is a nostalgic reverie sung by a drunk recalling all the great nights with his old flame ''in a club in 1973.'' Since Blunt, 33, was a zygote then, you may wonder what he imagines clubgoers were grinding to at the time. Perhaps he's thinking of the rump- shaking classics by Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Gilbert O'Sullivan (the ''Alone Again (Naturally)'' guy), and the Bee Gees (pre–Saturday Night Fever) to name a few balladeers who could ''sing like girls,'' as Blunt has said of himself. On this very piano-based album unlike Bedlam, which ventured more into contemporary Coldplay-isms he totally nails the synth-free minimalism of that period. Lost improves on the first disc at least five times over, partly because its starker focus might really take you back to...well, certainly not a club, but maybe an AM radio- equipped kid's bedroom circa 1973.
But it's not exactly kid stuff. The darker and gnarlier lyrics reveal that dating a succession of the world's most beautiful women hasn't kept Blunt from turning into a curiously gloomy Gus. Mortality is a recurring theme the romantic- sounding ''I Really Want You'' turns out to be a desperate prayer to an unresponsive God, prompted by the singer's stint with the British army in Kosovo. The two edgiest tracks even pack some contempt, starting with the self-loathing ''Give Me Some Love,'' in which Blunt tells us he's ''taken a shipload of drugs'' to blot out his identity. Then there's ''Annie,'' an amusingly vicious putdown of some female singer whose sexcapades have eclipsed her music career: ''They said you're a star-to-be/In the NME/But the walls came tumbling down, down/Will you go down on me?'' It might be the meanest tune any supposedly sensitive singer-songwriter has ever written. Who knew you had it in you, James, you little punk? B+