Recording information: Capital Studios, Hollywood, CA; JROX Studios, Jersey; Metropolis, London; Sphere Studios, Hollywood, CA; Sphere Studios, London; Sub-Level 03 Studios, Los Angeles, CA; The QuizLarossi Studio, Stockholm, Sweden; Van Howes Studios, Vancouver, BC.
Photographer: Simon Harris.
Whereas Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis have had little trouble making the transition from talent contest winners to chart-toppers, the male X-Factor winners have failed to make anywhere near the same impact. Steve Brookstein is an embarrassing footnote, Shayne Ward has gone AWOL since 2007's Breathless, and Leon Jackson was dropped just months after his debut spent only three weeks inside the Top 40. So last year's winner, Joe McElderry, has a pretty daunting challenge ahead of him if he's to avoid his predecessors on the pop scrapheap -- even more so due to the fact that his career didn't exactly have the most auspicious start, thanks to last year's astonishing Race Against the Machine Facebook campaign that denied him the Christmas number one. Just the uninspired choice of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," tacked on here as a bonus track, could have sounded the death knell for his career before it even began. Luckily, the rest of Wide Awake isn't so obvious. There are cover versions aplenty, but for a change they aren't the usual karaoke standards. Instead, McElderry resurrects two of the best overlooked U.K. singles from 2009, the Scissor Sisters-esque jaunty piano rock of Nerina Pallot's "Real Late Starter" and Donkeyboy's "Ambitions," a number one in Norway for an incredible 12 weeks. Only Five for Fighting's huge American hit "Superman," here given a Daniel Bedingfield-style makeover, may be known to the legions of fans who voted for him to win last December. In fact, it's the original material here that sounds more suspiciously familiar. The infectious "Feel the Fire" certainly owes more than a passing nod to Alphabeat's guilty pleasure "Fascination"; "Someone Wake Me Up" borrows the backing track of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and the chorus of Taylor Swift's "Love Story"; and "Fahrenheit" is a falsetto-led electro number reminiscent of Mika's rather divisive first album. But for someone who was praised so vehemently for his live vocals, it seems bizarre that McElderry is unrecognizable through most of the album, thanks to its rather generous use of Auto-Tune. It's a trick that works on the Hi-NRG synth pop of "Until the Stars Run Out," but less so on the more acoustic "Smile" and title track, where his previous effortlessly warm tones sound strangely robotic. Wide Awake's unashamedly pure pop sound is undoubtedly a refreshing antidote to the usual clich‚d balladry of previous male talent contest winners, but its lack of originality and unnecessary studio trickery mean it often struggles to capture the same charm and personality of his X-Factor performances. ~ Jon O'Brien
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