Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Gratitude (Dirty Hit) ***

THIS isn’t the third album you might have expected from York troubadour Benjamin Francis Leftwich.

The effort, pressure and lifestyle choices surrounding Gratitude’s predecessor, 2016’s After The Rain, left him burnt out and in need of rehab. His return could be forgiven for being a timid, fumbling attempt to reposition himself. Instead, you’d only know that he’s been through the emotional wringer if you already knew, because – sonically, at least – there are few clues here.

Leftwich has sometimes been billed as the British Bon Iver or lumped into the Damien Rice/Elliot Smith bracket. To say that’s a lazy categorization isn’t necessarily a compliment to him. His music doesn’t have the edge and intrigue of those contemporaries, at least not here. What it does have is confidence, resilience and versatility. Leftwich’s songs could be no more than acoustic efforts, but he’s unafraid to overlay them with synths and operatic backing, giving Gratitude a pop sheen rather than a folk soul.

It can leave him stuck between floors, with the title track, Sometimes, and Miracle Sister being neither stripped back nor inventive enough to hold any attention. But when Leftwich commits to a direction, the results are impressive: Look Ma! brings in broken piano and loops; the spacey Big Fish has (slight) echoes of The Verve’s Make It ‘Til Monday; Real Friends is virtually R&B, and the beat-driven Luzern is unashamed chart-friendly emotion and none the worse for it.

What really stands out about Gratitude, however, is its honesty. Leftwich wears his heart on his sleeve and tackles his current life theme of recovery and rebuild without lapsing into being overwrought; his vocals are all about purpose rather than self-pity. Many albums that emerge from tough personal times are made as much for the artist as the audience. On Gratitude, one of the less introspective sobriety albums you’re likely to hear for a while, Leftwich – to his immense credit - puts himself second.

Mark Stead