CD Review of Spirit by Leona Lewis
Recommended if you like
Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey,
Kelly Clarkson
Label
J/Syco
Leona Lewis: Spirit

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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Y
ou can hate Simon Cowell and Clive Davis – Lord knows they make it easy – but even if their casually contemptuous attitudes toward music as art set your teeth on edge, there’s no denying that they both know how to sell records. In an era of widespread creative control for artists, Cowell and Davis are two of the most vocal proponents of the old “singers do the singing and writers do the writing” school of thought, so when it was announced that they’d be co-producing Spirit, the debut release from “X Factor” winner Leona Lewis, two things were immediately clear: One, Lewis wouldn’t get more than a token co-write on it; and two, it would sell through the roof.

Spirit hasn’t even been out in the States for a month, but both of those prophecies have already been borne out – Lewis’ sole songwriting contribution is a one-third co-write on the bonus track “Here I Am,” and the album has been setting sales records in Europe since late last year. It debuted at Number One here, too – selling an unreal-for-2008 205,000 copies in its first week (consider that James Otto, debuting at Number Three, moved only 58,000). It took Mariah Carey’s new one to knock Spirit from its perch – which is absolutely appropriate, given how cannily Lewis’ album channels the kinda-maybe-R&B MOR that launched Carey’s career (and Whitney Houston’s before her).

Leona Lewis

A purist might literally choke on the notion, but Cowell and Davis seek timelessness in their projects, at least insofar as they make no bones about trying to churn out the least inoffensive, most pan-demographic product they possibly can; neither of them care about where a song comes from as long as it’s a soft pitch down the middle. The closest they’ll ever come to a curveball is greenlighting the sprinkling of some vaguely modern noises on top of a doughy ballad, like the oh-so-slightly tricked-out drum loop underneath “Bleeding Love,” this album’s leadoff single and (first) Number One hit. (“Bleeding Love” was co-written by Ryan Tedder, the mewling, faux-hawked plague whose day gig, fronting the watered-down matchbox twenty facsimile OneRepublic, has given us the horror known as “Apologize.”) In this sense, with Spirit, they’ve succeeded in crafting a timeless record – you could play it side by side with Houston or Carey’s debuts and not miss a beat.

The crucial difference, sadly, is in the material. Whitney had “Saving All My Love for You” and Mariah had “Vision of Love” – both songs that would have been utterly pedestrian in the wrong hands, but were saved by their performances. Lewis, it must be said, has a voice made of Waterford crystal – it whoops, soars, and plummets with all the tasteful melisma modern pop audiences expect from their young divas. But it doesn’t have much charisma, at least not here – and the songs don’t help, offering a seamless series of tried-and-true vanilla pop clichés. You could run the whole thing on a loop for an entire day without realizing what you were listening to; the only time the album really perks up is on the first of two bonus tracks, “Footprints in the Sand” – and that’s only because the song is so ridiculously bombastic that you can’t help feeling sorry for Lewis.

Ultimately, what you get out of Spirit will depend on what you’re looking for. If you want a collection of eminently hummable background music that will penetrate your consciousness via osmosis, then it’s worth its weight in gold – but if it’s pop with personality you seek, then you’re liable to find this a frustratingly dull set of songs. That won’t stop it from going platinum, but when it comes time for her second album, Lewis will need to decide whether she wants to be a true performer or simply a conduit.

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