Album Review: Matt Cardle – ‘Letters’

Matt Cardle – ‘Letters’: 3.3

If you thought The X Factor was going to make any kind of trend from it’s last two winner’s début albums – that being Alexandra’s and Joe’s – you thought wrong. Just look at the cover of Matt Cardle’s album. That’s clearly a serious artist, right? A serious artist who means serious business with his serious music, wearing his best serious face for all public performances and conventions. There’s no room for Alex’s sexified pop pap from ‘Overcome’ or any of Joe’s kittenish vigour from ‘Wide Awake’ here on ‘Letters’. Besides, now that both Alex and Joe have set sail from the Syco island after varying degrees of success, it makes sense to try a different path. ‘Letters’s cover is moody and dramatic, silent and reflective; a trifle dull and a tad colourless, just like it’s contents.

It must come as no surprise then, that the majority ‘Letters’ is quite a task to listen to for those of us unsmitten by Matt’s X Factor stint. If the prospect of it sounding much like “Snow Patrol’s biggest moments” isn’t enough of a promise of inaccessible, metaphorical – and not a small amount overblown – ponderings of life and love, there’s always listening to the thing. But throughout the duration of ‘Letters’, you couldn’t say that comparison was wholly validated by the big electric guitar sound and Cardle’s falsetto, capable of inducing a reliably reactionary grimace. Instead none of ‘Letters’ quite has the nonchalant charm of Gary Lightbody’s most universal, faux-philosophical murmurings, but it certainly tries to re-enact the same stadium-sized crescendos. If only Cardle’s voice could hold the same weight as his guitars. But under the pressure of simply being heard over it all, he snaps like a toothpick and makes up for it by sounding like a snivelling prepubescent on his more modestly produced songs like ‘Beat of A Breaking Heart’ and ‘Faithless’: “I didn’t realise that the story had three sides” he sings in his sweetest falsetto. It’s almost as if his mental capacity has been reduced to that of a ten year-old as well.

Newly announced second single and opening track ‘Starlight’ is given the heavy-duty job of easing the frown around the eye-brow area for many of ‘Letters’s more sceptical listeners. But when Matt claims that it’s “a depressing, happy song about the insignificance of everything” it really does drain out any pallor left in the beast. Listening to it though, it’s pounding piano, drums and prancing guitar strum work well with the careless lyrics (“We are beautiful, breakable/We’re gonna lose it all to the light”), though it’s chorus undoes much of the song’s struggle for that all-important credibility even with (or possibly because of) Matt’s attempt at some soaring vocals. It’s not as bad as the rest of ‘Letters’ it must be said, but that’s like saying John’s not as bad as Edward.

Next up is first single ‘Run For Your Life’; proof that Gary Barlow is slowly ebbing away his credibility with every one of his endeavours since signing to The X Factor. Anyone remember the Take That-Nirvana incident of 1995? A heinous crime to music best left forgotten and reason enough to rubbish the thought of a Gary Barlow rock song without having even heard it. But when you do listen to ‘Run For Your Life’ as part of the album, there’s quaint satisfaction in that it manages to achieve a suitably anthemic nature: something which Matt can’t manage on his own or with half a dozen other writers on board, there being only one other moment were such heights are scaled successfully. As we proceed further and further down the track listing, you begin to wonder whether he’s grasped the right end of the sword with this whole ‘serious music’ business. In preparation for ‘All or Nothing’, he said “I recorded it after a couple of cups of tea and a few cigarettes so it’s quite raw”. Dear Christ. The song barely sounds distinguishable amongst his others whinings and the line at which one must stop trying to desperately cleave empathy is completely ignored as he wails tunelessly to some greater power during the chorus: “Bring her back/‘Cause I need her now”. It’s painful not just in it’s execution, but also it’s lyrical barrenness.

In his lighter moments (“lighter” being used as a term to describe the infrequent moments where you can imagine him not bawling his eyes out on the floor whilst recording), he becomes listenable. ‘Stars & Lovers’ is an uplifting soft-rock song with an eagerness to sound like Bryan Adams rattling off a dozen cosmological barriers to love like “If Jupiter was close enough” and the nauseating “If I could have one superpower/It would be to make you understand”. Filtering through that, it’s not half bad and is one of the rare moments on ‘Letters’ where the melodies stick, even if all-too-often it sounds like it’s going to evolve into a certain Bon Jovi song about prayers and living on them. But the main issue here is that once again, Matt’s voice falls short of expectations. He nails the verses in most of his songs, but the anguished strain for the notes that circle just clear of his register is hardly a tantalising veneer on top of something that simply can’t please if left by itself, so instead of going back to the drawing board like he should’ve done, you get the distinct impression Matt, despite his desperation to prove otherwise, has taken the easy way out.

Skipping over the last few tracks of 100% filler you look back at the majority of ‘Letters’ wondering why you’d – or any of Matt’s recording team – even bothered. Matt set the bar too high for even himself to reach. ‘Letters’ sounds like a collection of Great American song-writer wannabes by way of pleasant vocal niceness pilfered from Coldplay and Snow Patrol. But where those bands both succeed in having the ability to produce song that can carry depth and a recognisable melodic structure (often inflated to the point where none of Martin’s whining and none of Lightbody’s preachy, insignificant lyrics even matter), Cardle fails. He fails to replicate this because of his inability to work melodies in the same way Martin and Lightbody can. If there’s a melody on ‘Letters’, it’s either vocal, and therefore tainted by Matt’s croaking, whimpering delivery, or it’s soon bleached out by some unnecessary wall of sound when the choruses roll around. The result is an album that segues into a bland, would-be anthemic forty-five minute-long marathon of depression-suffering rock triteness.

Download: ‘Starlight’, ‘Stars & Lovers’.

Digital Relase: October 17, 2011
Physical Release: October 17, 2011

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1 Comment

  1. ThatOne

    Such a shame that you should sit on the fence like that.  Tee-hee!

    Actually that’s a great review that says everything I might have said if I had the ability to organise thoughts as well as you, and if I wasn’t too bored by Cardle to bother.

    I don’t know what direction Alexandra has taken since she and Psycho, (Is that the right spelling???), parted company, but Li’l Joe has done extremely well with his freedom from Cowell.   It must be pretty certain that Joe is actually giving thanks to the turn of events and their timing.  Joe cannot ever have thought that he would record an album called “Classic”, (A very promising first album in the genre for a traditional English light-tenor, BTW.), and very few of the people who bought it would have thought it before its release.  It took ten days to go Gold, which is phenomenal for a non-Pop album by a novice after a change of genre.

    I do not think that Alexandra will be able to re-invent herself as comprehensively as Joe has done; her future might already be in the past.  Most labels are cutting down their roster, not looking for rejects from other labels to save.  Even the first and second placers from American Idol 2010, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox, have been set free by RCA and Jive from contracts that haven’t even made two years.  Anyone else, and that really means “anyone”, signed to an RCA label better send out their friends and families to buy albums by the dozen…

    And where does Matt fit in with all that? I don’t think he will for much longer unless he can find charisma, lyrical originality and musical invention before his name comes up in some budget review meeting deep in the bowels of Syco. (Is that the right spelling???)

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