Humble, self-deprecating, likeable: Simon Cowell can appear to be none of these things, and yet last Christmas his televisual fungus produced a genuinely popular, modest winner. X Factor lovers and haters alike agree that Matt Cardle has a decent voice and inoffensive demeanour. Optimists may have hoped he'd spend 2011 recording an album of musical merit and even some emotion, a welcome change from the processed dance-pop or saccharine ballads which generally emerge from such coddled, cosseted 'champions'.
Sadly, Letters is over-produced to a point where what distinguished Cardle from the Cheryl clones and cheeky boys is lost. Amid a barrage of formulaically chugging soft-rock structures and overwhelming strings, the poor chap struggles to be present. Boy does he struggle. You can just about discern him straining every vocal cord to display 'real' passion, but he's swamped in what the industry thinks of as 'epic' studio mannerisms. Almost every verse builds 'perfectly' like a Take That song; every chorus enters with the big crashing guitars of a Snow Patrol anthem or the heft of a hired orchestra.
Lest we forget: Cardle stood out when he emerged because his voice conveyed intimacy, vulnerability, even - dare we say - soul. His collaborators have shoved him in a corner and said: "Leave this to us sonny, we know what we're doing." So despite working with proven writers, from Eg White to Starsailor's James Walsh to, er, Gary Barlow, Cardle never gets to be the guy he wants to be. That would be (he's said) Ray LaMontagne or Percy Sledge. One wonders if he went home at night assuming he'd cut a LaMontagne-style track (possibly All for Nothing), only to return the next morning to find it swaddled in excess.
From the opening Starlight with its falsetto swoops to the faltering Slowly (where every syllable gets the trademark I'm-low-now-I'm-high treatment), from Barlow's plodding Run for Your Life to the try-hard title-track, the album slides into mainstream mush, always generic, rarely genuine. So many times does Cardle sing words like "honest", "true", "heart" and "soul" that one imagines this must hurt him more than it hurts us.
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