Album Review: Joe McElderry - 'Wide Awake'
"Reality TV Talent Shows".
It's an oxymoron in itself. Very rarely do these talent shows ever find any talent, and often end up with a Live final full of diva wannabes, deluded singers we can all laugh at, or people with actual personality and individuality that get booted off around about Round 6, leaving Cowell with the most marketable, dry, unoriginal imitation of another greater popstar for himself. Cowell is a businessman, he knows nothing of popular music - ask him his favourite artist and it'll be someone from before the 70's; ask him his favourite songs and they'll most likely be by actual, soulful singers like Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, but he knows what’s selling these days: throwaway Pop and R&B/Dance.
So what is Cowell to do now? He's just won himself a brand new puppet for his record label, Joe McElderry, and he's clearly not marketable material, recent statistic shows that male winners of the show always do badly. Joe has a good voice and an attractive face but can he sell?; a voice isn’t everything. Let's not take that risk. Let's morph him into something else.
Nine months later:
Ta-Dah! No literally. 'Ta-Dah!'. As in the Scissor Sisters album? The one that wasn't quite up to scratch with the first? Yeah, that one.
That's what Simon has done here - he's taken Joe, just as he does with all The X Factor winners, and markets them as "The New [Insert Name Of A Great Act That No X Factor Winner Could Ever Hope To Replicate The Success Of]". Joe appears to have turned from a timid, shy teenager with a good tenor voice into an extroverted Jake Shears/Mika wannabe with a forced falsetto with none of the sex appeal of Jake, nor the song-writing skills of Mika. It's no mystery, if you look back you’ll see that none of Simon winners have ever been anything original. Shayne Ward was the "new" Justin Timberlake, Leona was made into Mariah Carey, Alexandra became a second-rate Beyoncé, Leon Jackson (remember him?), he became an awkward Michael Bublé impersonator trying to do jazz, and Olly Murs (has a joint contract with Syco and Sony) is the new Will Young with his smooth crooning and adult contemporary tracks, only Olly and his jaw have none of the charm Will has in his little finger. And now we come back to Joe McElderry, who's début album echoes the efforts that were seen on Scissor Sisters' 'Ta-Dah!', only it's a tad overproduced, over-thought, and at times, not as good as what could've been.
There are some real gems on this album though, but even so, I feel that a lot of the upbeat tracks sound very similar, and the overuse of auto-tune would make anyone think Joe has forgotten how to sing in the nine month gap he took from the airwaves. Two particular tracks, 'Someone Wake Me Up', clearly lead single material, and 'Real Late Starter', show the newly acquainted, extroverted side of Joe, and there are songs like 'Superman' and 'Smile', that are rare moments on the album when we can hear a bit of restrained emotion on the thick layer of auto-tune - "Men weren't men to ride with the clouds between their knees/It's not easy to be me", he sings on 'Superman', reminding us why he won instead of Olly. However, there are moments when you just wish he'd said "No" to Cowell, like 'Love Is War', which sounds like the Adams Family have started a choir.
01. 'Ambitions' (3.5 STARS)
(Originally performed by Donkeyboy)
The lead single and first track on the album doesn't mislead; but there are some things you can enjoy about this song, like that absolute stomper of a chorus and the sing-along factor the whole song gives. However, the song doesn't actually have a middle eight, just a few bars of reverb from the third repeat of the chorus, meaning from about 1:30-the end, all you hear is that chorus. Now that, is grating after a few listens. Also, when I first heard the song, I nearly died at the sudden falsetto.
02. 'Someone Wake Me Up' (4.0 STARS)*
Ah, now this track is superb. It's similar to 'Ambitions' but Joe performs it in his much nicer lower range and shows a huge amount of emotion from the bridge ("Don't you go and cross this line/Don't say I love, say I love you/'Cause that would drive me crazy"), with minimal instrumentation in the verses and a stunning chorus and musical section, this is screaming to be the next single, so thankfully, Joe announced at his album launch at G-A-Y last night, that it is.
03. 'Superman' (4.0 STARS)
(Originally performed by Five For Fighting)
Well, there was bound to be at least one huge ballad wasn't there? Thankfully, it's more enjoyable than a dreary R&B ballad about a lost love; Joe's voice cuts through with absolute clarity (no auto-tune!) and the lyrics are brilliantly crafted "Even heroes have the right to dream". It's got one of the best productions on the album, purely because it doesn't want to trip over itself trying to be hyper and overcrowded, the strings add poignancy and Joe comes across as emotive and with conviction.
04. 'Real Late Starter' (4.0 STARS)
(Originally performed by Nerina Pallot)
Hello, Jake Shears. This sounds very much like a Scissor Sisters record, and it's fair to say this is one of those tracks that's smothered in a thick layer of auto-tune. That aside, it starts with a buzzing synth and quickfire lyrics to set the mischievous tone. Nerina's lyrics are brilliant and discuss an overly lazy teenager making excuses for being so - "You can call me lazy/I think of it as takin' my time". Complete with Mika-styled falsetto and Mika-styled plonking piano backing, this is one huge pop ditty, but don't expect it to be one you can constantly have on repeat.
05. 'Until The Stars Run Out' (4.0 STARS)
I'm not sure what this one sounds like. It's like it's a trance record at first, and has an obvious sonic ambience to it, with Joe's voice being subjected to a vocoder, rather than auto-tune. There's a sample of George Michael's 'Faith', and interpolating it into the whole production actually works very well. This could be a single, because the chorus is extremely catchy, even if it does sound like something I've heard before, but can't quite place.
06. 'Feel The Fire' (4.0 STARS)
If ever there was an energetic introduction, this is it. Opening to a conglomeration of hand-claps and drums, a staccato piano joins, before Joe's voice hijacks the party. It does sound freakishly like Alphabeat's 'Fascination' in the music department, but the chorus does make up for it. It's one of the more mellow yet hyperactive songs; it's inoffensive but full of bubbling energy, and with another hugely catchy chorus that not even Joe's falsetto can ruin, it helps 'Wide Awake' hold off that dreaded "Album Filler" label for another track; it actually sounds like it could've fitted onto one of the Jackson 5 albums.
07. 'Fahrenheit' (4.5 STARS)
Another track that seems hugely influenced by the super-sexually-charged Scissor Sisters, only this time it seems to work really well. Maybe it's just the fact I like the Scissor Sisters, but the verses are brilliant and don't lose the listener's interest at all, and then the chorus arrive with an elastic, Jake Shears-esque falsetto and a super catchy production. The lyrics aren't up to much, and the sustained falsetto screech towards the end might not be to everyone's taste, but I'm really hoping this is a single, with a really sleazy video.
08. 'Wide Awake' (4.5 STARS)
After the embarrassingly camp dance routine you probably did whilst listening to 'Fahrenheit', things become more subdued again for 'Wide Awake', at least up until the chorus, which explodes into a musical conglomeration of drums, strings, synthesiser, guitar and vocals. It's a huge ballad where Joe is desperate to fall asleep because "you're on the other side", yet he's "wide awake". The lyrics themselves are so-so, but there are some lovely little lines like "I keep dreaming of falling back to sleep", but seems to make no cohesive sense what-so-ever, but in the song it comes together with everything else make this yet another great track.
TRACK OF THE ALBUM!
09. 'Smile' (5.0 STARS)
(Originally performed by Uncle Kracker)
Now this is the real, feel good, easy listening track on the album. Even though Joe's vocals have been hidden behind a good layer of auto-tune, they don't affect the sentiments or the charm of the song. I never thought Joe would ever cover Uncle Kracker (of all people!?), but then again he did cover Donkeyboy and Nerina Pallot so... Joe's vocals are on top form as they somehow convey tonnes of emotion as well as sounding very 'American' in the middle eight. It's clearly single quality, because it’s one of those tracks that would be loved by people of all ages.
10. 'Love Is War' (3.5 STARS)
I always say that when I rate songs on an album, I take into account how well they fit on to said album, 'Love Is War' is an absolutely bonkers track with some awful yet somehow very catchy vocoding which makes Joe sound like he singing in a graveyard with a thousand comic book ghouls and ghosts joining him. As I said earlier, it sounds like the Adams Family choir let loose on recording equipment, but the lyrics do hold some juice - "If love is war-ar-ar, then you're-ou're-ou're/Get-ting ea-sy to fight", he sings with a warbling melismatic tone. It shouldn't work, and at first it sounds terrible, but it's also deliriously catchy.
11. 'The Climb' (4.0 STARS) (bonus track for UK & Ireland)
(Originally performed by Miley Cyrus)
Oh my, what's this? By the time you reach the winner's single you've got so used to Joe's auto-tuned voice, this doesn't even sound like him. You're reminded of how good a vocalist Joe is, and then you look back at the past 10 tracks and wonder why they bothered with the auto-tune. He sings the Miley Cyrus original with utmost sincerity and beautiful clarity. I still think the gospel choir isn't needed, as Joe already proves himself as a great vocalist in the first two minutes.
I've come the conclusion that, without actually understanding why, 'Wide Awake' is the best X Factor winner's album to date, despite it being nearly schizophrenic of nature: one minute you're flouncing you're way through some of the campest songs of the year ('Real Late Starter', 'Fahrenheit'), throwing some suggestive moves and jazz hands while you do so, and the next you're relaxing in the shade of a veranda in the back garden of a country farm house, looking out on fields upon fields of lush greenery ('Smile', 'Wide Awake'). But, I wouldn't throw that claim around lightly; this album is really very good, for those with a broad musical taste, and I feel that 'Ambitions' was definitely not the best choice for lead single, or even a single at all because there are plenty of golden pop nuggets waiting to be released on this album, and that fact that all of the three slower tracks are brilliant will make it hard to decide which will get "the ballad release".
Of the eleven tracks, there's two outstanding tracks and nine great tracks to back them up: there are no fillers on this record, unless you include 'The Climb' as a filler.
My only concern is that I'm not sure it will sell well, if not in the short term then in the long term because, as nicely packaged as it is, wonky-pop/bubblegum pop is not selling well these days. This was a problem that faced 'Ambitions' - Syco expected to be able to turn the charts around, which after 2-3 years of dance music heavily influenced by R&B, and now the dubstep, grim and D&B have come to the foreground, it looks to be a very long time before solely pop acts will have a day in the sunshine. Look at the Scissor Sisters (quite an apt comparison) - they've released two singles from their latest album 'Night Work', and still haven’t managed to get to the UK Top Ten with this era ('Fire With Fire' peaked at #11, and 'Any Which Way' peaked at #81). Their album may have hit #2 but it’s not even certified yet, after their last two went multi-platinum. People aren't into pop anymore, you have to be a pop veteran like Kylie Minogue to sell well, so Syco choosing this path for Joe may not have been the best idea, and the cold reception that 'Ambitions' received can't have helped matters either. He was never going to be able to change the way music is today with one single, and I'm surprised even his big head thought he could. And you do get the feeling that, when listening to 'The Climb' again, you realise Simon didn't really need to over-produce Joe's vocals, because once upon a time, Joe used to be very easy to listen to.
Album Rating: 8.2/10
Download These: 'Someone Wake Me Up', 'Superman', 'Fahrenheit', 'Wide Awake', 'Smile'
*I will admit though, I have no idea what he's singing - it actually sound like a different language... maybe French?