The X factor has made celebrities of all its winners for varying periods of time and with very varied commercial success. Longevity though, Leona Lewis (sort of), has eluded them all. They never seemed to be keeping up with current trends and only JLS (who didn’t even win) had their finger on the pulse of what it took to make a hit song and still keep a modicum of credibility. Then last year James Arthur single handedly made anyone who ever questioned the shows relevance in the current music scene, keep quiet (at least until the new series started anyway). To that end the fruits of his labour, will singlehandedly give the show the boost of respect it deserves, right?
There was a different feeling when James won the show last year. He wasn’t a typical X Factor winner. Here was a winner who hadn’t simply sung his way to victory. Here was a winner who not only performed like a seasoned veteran, he had put his own spin on every song he showcased and every one of those spins was such that every song was on trend. But more to the point, it was clear that James was his own man. Like Will Young Before him (who won the show in its previous guise), he did not want to let anyone else dictate his sound, or his career path for him and, in parts, this album reflects that.
His voice is amazing. It engages whether belting out notes or floating over lonely piano keys. Clean enough so he doesn’t sound old before his time, and out of place over his songs, yet carries just enough left over gravel in the throat so that any emotion shown is made all the more identifiable, when it make an appearance. Songs like the stunning Emeli Sande assisted, and string ensemble backed ‘Roses’, ‘Suicide‘ and the awesomely arranged ‘Recovery‘, show a man with huge songwriting talent and the emotional angst to carry what he has written.
The expansive single and album opener ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody loves You‘, is catchy and atmospheric with just the right pinch of slick, so as not to alienate his original fan base. The Salaam Remi (The Fugees, Amy Winehouse, Nas) produced ‘New Tattoo‘, is superb modern Hip Hop R’n’B and shows just what is missed from the genres heyday. The very well executed ‘Get Down‘ and the uptempo Soul jam ‘Lie Down‘, are also signs that when everything in place, there is an awful lot more for James to tap into. The high standard set by the great songs however, means that the let downs are made all the more conspicuous in their appearance.
The problem with a winning X Factor single, is that by the time the following album finally takes a bow, the single sounds a lot older than the year that has passed by in between. To that end ‘Impossible‘ just sounds out of place and should have been retired after it’s last stint in the limelight. ‘Is This Love?’, I am afraid, is typical X Factor and simply screams ‘I really want a hit second single’, as does ‘Certain Things‘ that seems a little too up itself for its own good.
Very good in places with flashes of brilliance, if I take this album and his X Factor performances into account before casting judgement, I cannot help feeling that there is more to come from James Arthur. Yes I am a big fan but I should be an even bigger one. I can only assume that my fears about the talent being reigned in have, to an extent, come to pass. I was anticipating one or two more raps, and what happened to the Drum and Bass assisted soundscapes that he utilised so well during his time on the show?
The crux of the problem is that James and the other X Factor winners are both helped and hindered by their success. They are bound by expectation and the fact is that the bulk of their fans up to the point of them winning, are only fans because of the songs they sung on the show. In the record companies eyes they must be catered to first and this is the reason why we end up with a watered down version of what James is truly capable of delivering. Because of the way he interpreted the songs he sung, I fully expected an album considerably edgier than what was delivered. He may be more popular because he won, and he did deserve it but as good as his debut is, It would have been considerably better had he been runner up.