By Allison Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
They both lost, of course.
Adam Lambert, one of the most outsize, Technicolor contestants ever to appear on "American Idol," lost Season 8 to wan, amiable Kris Allen. Skittish, angel-voiced Susan Boyle lost Season 3 of "Britain's Got Talent" to dance troupe/future Trivial Pursuit question Diversity.
But as Chris Daughtry can tell you, winning isn't everything. Boyle's debut disc, "I Dreamed a Dream," is Amazon.com's highest preseller ever; Lambert's debut, "For Your Entertainment," is the best post-"Idol" debut ever made.
That isn't saying a lot: Most "Idol" debuts are pasted-together, middle-of-the-road affairs filled with generic ballads about overcoming adversity; fans have learned not to expect too much. But "For Your Entertainment" sets the standard for how not-dreadful "AI" discs can be, succeeding mostly because it doesn't sound like an "Idol" disc at all.
It helps that Lambert is a live wire of a performer, as anyone who saw his over-the-top performance on Sunday night's American Music Awards can testify. Lambert can sing anything, and he does, vavavooming his way through an extravagant, exuberant collection of glam rock, disco and pop tracks. Blessed with better material than any "Idol" contestant has ever had, he enlists a diverse, unexpectedly high-wattage crop of contributors (Pink, Lady Gaga, Rivers Cuomo).
"Entertainment" is a whirligig of pianos and strings, of vertiginous walls of vocals and monster choruses, with Lambert sometimes struggling to retain his personality in the midst of such a disparate group of overlords. He doesn't always succeed: The riotous electro-meets-hair-metal track "Music Again," written by former Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins, resembles a Darkness song after a run-in with a BeDazzler. On "Soaked," written by Matthew Bellamy, frontman of the Radiohead-evoking Muse, Lambert sounds uncannily like Thom Yorke. "Fever," co-written by Lady Gaga, suggests an unexceptional Gaga track, except for the part where Lambert sings about his fella. (Post-"Idol," Lambert outed himself to Rolling Stone in the least shocking de-closeting of all time.) The lyrics are awful ("There he goes/My baby walks so slow/Sexual tic-tac-toe"), but no one ever said progress was pretty.
Boyle's post-finale run was even more eventful than Lambert's. Footage of her first-round rendition of the "Les Misérables" standard "I Dreamed a Dream" made her a YouTube superstar, but the subsequent backlash may have contributed to her eventual loss. After the show ended, she went wobbly, suffering a public breakdown that only amplified the qualities -- vulnerability, fragility, awkwardness -- that made her beloved in the first place.
Boyle herself is a bit of a blank, an empty receptacle for a million triumph-of-the-Everywoman fantasies, a beautiful voice without a point of view. She needs a stronger hand than she's given on "I Dreamed a Dream," her lackluster new album of standards.
"Dream" is divided between mostly well-chosen contemporary covers and religious and holiday songs ("How Great Thou Art," "Silent Night"), which appear to have been chosen for their seasonal sales possibilities. The album is schmaltzy and overdone, the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, though this isn't Boyle's fault. She wisely resists any impulse toward musical scenery chewing, bringing a welcome sense of understatement to would-be pathos-fests like "Cry Me a River." A slowed-down version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" is close to perfection, as is her unlikely cover of Patty Griffin's ode to MLK, "Up to the Mountain."
Not all the contemporary redo's fare as well: A molasses-like version of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer" is better in theory, and a cover of Madonna's "You'll See," complete with swelling strings -- Boyle's producers love swelling strings -- is one of many songs that feel manipulative.
Boyle lacks the savvy of Lambert, who likely emerged from the womb with a 10-point plan for world domination and a can of hairspray, and who imprinted himself as best he could upon an album created for him by others. Unlike him, Boyle is poorly used, regarded here as little more than a pretty voice and marketable back story who can sell any song, no matter how schlocky. She deserves better.
Adam Lambert: "Music Again," "Sleepwalker," "Fever"; Susan Boyle: "Wild Horses," "Up to the Mountain"
Stewart is a freelance writer.