It's not too often a new artist gets a launch as spectacular as this. After winning last year's third season of The X Factor, the British answer to American Idol, Leona Lewis put out the obligatory first single that became Christmas #1, an unremarkable remake of Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This." The single sold over half a million copies in one week, quickly becoming the second-best selling single of the year. Leona then went dormant for the better part of this year, crafting her debut album.
Calculating is more like it. Having caught the eye of Clive Davis, America's most prominent music mogul, Davis and Simon Cowell of X Factor and American Idol fame, teamed up to assemble an army of pop music's latest and greatest to ensure Leona's debut would be a success. For success is no guarantee, as Pop Idol, American Idol and X Factor winners have learned. Sure you have Will Young, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood. But then you also have Michelle McManus, Steve Brookstein, and Taylor Hicks. Winning a reality show and getting a quick #1 are a nice boost, but you need to follow it with a proper launch to became a sensation.
Intriguingly, the list of producers and songwriters is heavier on Americans than Brits--an indication of where Sony BMG sees this project heading long term--and includes such names as Dallas Austin (Madonna, TLC, Michael Jackson, Sugababes, etc.), Walter Afanasieff (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion), J.R. Rotem (Rihanna, Sean Kingston), Stargate (Beyonce, Ne-Yo), Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, The Bangles, Heart, Celine Dion), and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic, Jennifer Lopez, Natasha Bedingfield). Basically, you could trace the origin of a good number of the biggest hits of the last 20 years to the group responsible for Spirit. It's the most remarkable pop music production team I've ever seen assembled for one album, and interestingly doesn't include some of the British staples like Cathy Dennis, Guy Chambers, or Stephen Lipson.
The template chosen for Leona is appropriately Mariah Carey, the most successful female pop artist of the last 20 years, having scored 17 #1 hits in the US since her 1990 debut. The parallels are worth noting. Both scored their first hits fairly young--Leona at 21 last year and Carey at 20 with "Vision of Love." Both come from mixed race parentage (black fathers and white mothers) and grew up in their countries' largest urban areas, New York and London. Leona even looks a bit like Carey did 17 years ago, courting a youthful but sensible image, her hair in long blonde-kissed corkscrew curls. Lewis apparently won a talent show in her early teen years, performing Carey's "Always Be My Baby."
On Spirit she sounds like Carey too (particularly early '90s Carey), commanding an impressive vocal range over a varied but safe collection of slow to mid-tempo pop that leans ever so slightly adult, ever so slightly urban, without going too far in either those directions. First single "Bleeding Love" recalls "Vision of Love" for being dramatic and instantly striking, as it is different enough to stand out from the current pack of hits, but similar (and likable) enough to guarantee airplay (it is currently #1 on the UK radio chart). The melodic track pulses with strong bass drums, strings, and a great hook, despite its surgical lyrics ("you cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep keep bleeding love").
"Bleeding Love" is the album's best cut, but there other good ones, ensuring that Leona has a few more hits (possibly #1s) to look forward to next year. Second track "Whatever It Takes" is a winning upbeat track, scored with mostly strings and other acoustic instruments, recalling Des'ree's "You Gotta Be." The album's other good up-tempo track is "The Best You Never Had," marked by strong beats, guitar, and a strong chorus. It's written by Billy Steinberg, and is not too unlike the track he wrote for Jojo that was a hit last year, "Too Little, Too Late." Two other somewhat uptempo numbers, are fine, but not as good. "Angel," a Stargate production whose sound is instantly recognizable (they did Beyonce's "Irreplaceable") is inoffensive, but not distinctive. Same goes for urban sounding "I'm You."
The rest of the album is slower songs, many of which are quite good, but not all. "Homeless" opens with piano in a haunting minor key expanding with a full orchestra for the choruses, reminiscent of Christina Aguilera-type stuff like "Beautiful" or "Hurt." Leona is effectively restrained for most of the song, letting loose a tingling vocal assault for the middle section when the drums kick in. The song effectively showcases Lewis as a proficient singer, not just a studio-enhanced product.
"Take a Bow," like "Bleeding Love" is co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder, the lead singer of band OneRepublic currently enjoying a massive international hit, "Apologize," thanks to a re-work by Timbaland. Tim's influence on Tedder is apparent here. "Take a Bow" is a beat heavy ballad with a strong dramatic chorus, not unlike "Apologize."
The piano and string backed "Better in Time" is an obvious choice for a future single. So is "I Will Be," another piano and string backed ballad that kicks it up with drums and guitar at the first chorus and builds to a big rock climax and Carey-worth high note. "Yesterday" recalls the smooth urban groove of Carey's comeback hit "We Belong Together," but with a richer string-driven ending. Lovely "Footprints in the Sand" is worthwhile too, if you like a good dramatic ballad with lots of strings and a chord change power ending complete with choir. It's a cliche I know, but it works. Less interesting are ballads "Here I Am," which producer/songwriter Afanasieff makes sound too much like his 1993 Carey hit "Hero," and an unneeded remake of "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face." The album closes with a bonus cut of "A Moment Like This," which presumably will be omitted from any US release.
The extent to which I can easily compare these songs to big hits by others acts underscores how safe the production is here. These songs are designed to be hits, and in many cases they already have been in slightly altered form. By having them assembled by such en esteemed group of musical craftsmen, it's like the music industry is saying that newbie Lewis is good enough to stand with the likes of our most successful performers. It makes for a good, but not great album, similar to the debuts by Will Young and Kelly Clarkson. I am hopeful, that just as those two did, Leona will soon put out a better second album, the first in a possibly long pop career. Who knows? Perhaps ten years from now Leona will hand out popsicles on MTV Europe, the press will catalog her rise and fall, and then she'll surprise us all with a remarkable comeback, The Emancipation of Li-Li. Like the promo for Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Sci-Fi next Saturday night) says: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."
Best: Bleeding Love, Whatever It Takes, Take a Bow, Homeless, The Best You Never Had, I Will Be, Better in Time, Yesterday, Footprints in the Sand