X Factor winner reveals a disco-dusted debut of giddy pop pleasures.
Jaime Gill 2010
X Factor winner’s albums have been many things, from stupendously successful (Leona Lewis) to disappointing (Alexandra Burke) to dismal (Leon Jackson), but not one has been fun. Let's leave aside what a sad indictment this is of a show about pop music, that most giddy and joyous of all art forms, and instead celebrate the fact that the trend has finally been bucked with Wide Awake, the disco-dazzled debut from Joe McElderry.
This is doubly surprising because of its source. As cutely adorable as McElderry was throughout X Factor, he was also painfully polite and pliable, an obvious vehicle for the bland balladry and arid AOR that is Simon Cowell’s preferred production model. The Geordie mite’s first single – the near-unbearable schmaltz of The Climb, included here as a shudder-inducing ‘bonus’ track – seemed to confirm his likely future as a minor league West End stage star.
And then came Ambitions, the single proper, an irresistibly fizzy concoction which dumps a truck full of disco dust over the insidiously addictive Donkeyboy original. Its propulsive beats, sugar rush chorus and shameless flamboyance are revisited on the kittenish Real Late Starter and high camp Fahrenheit, both as frothily enjoyable. Noting that they sound exactly like the Scissor Sisters is fair but churlish, given the sheer gusto with which McElderry hurls himself into the spangles and laser gun effects. Besides, you suspect Jake Shears might forgive doe-eyed Joe.
There are flaws, of course. As well as a few forgettable songs, Wide Awake is undeniably derivative, and the bustling production can grow wearying. The heavy-handed vocal effects seem particularly self-defeating when they obscure McElderry’s most obvious asset, his sweetly ringing voice. It would take a particularly skilled sound engineer months to dig McElderry’s real tones out of the vocodered Until the Stars Run Out, and the result is as generic as it is upbeat. But you can forgive the faults for the soaring, splendidly silly space-ballad Superman or the breezily gorgeous, bright-eyed summer stroll of Smile.
So far the album’s commercial fate seems uncertain, given the surprising chart underperformance of Ambitions. If it does flop, the UK will have done itself a disservice, not only missing out on a genuinely sparky pop album, but more or less guaranteeing that it will be the last time Cowell allows one of his charges to actually entertain us in album form.