Leona Lewis returns with uplifting ballads on ‘I Am’

Leona Lewis sings her lungs out on "I Am," but the onslaught of uplifting, balladic songs without reprieve distracts from each song's individual merit. David Skinner via Wikimedia Commons

The most successful prodigy of the “X-Factor” (2004-present), Leona Lewis, is back with a new album: “I Am” (2015). Lewis won the U.K. version of the singing competition in 2006, earning herself a recording contract with Simon Cowell’s Syco Music, with which she recorded “Bleeding Love,” one of 2007’s inescapable hits.

The pop singer has kept herself busy over the years, churning out three other albums along the way to “I Am,” including a Christmas album and an album full of dubstep collaborations with the likes of Avicii. None of these endeavors enjoyed the success of her album “Spirit” (2007), which included “Bleeding Love,” but “I Am” has a lot of promise.

After Lewis’ two previous albums strayed from her powerful and effective pop diva sound, “I Am” comes out of the gates with textbook examples of pop ballads. “Thunder,” which was released as a single in July, sees Lewis putting her best foot forward. The track sounds similar to Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” (2014), as it swings from suspenseful, husky, almost a cappella whispering to uplifting, confident belting underscored by driving piano and drum lines. “And I won’t wait any longer / When you left me down, I got stronger / If you want to wait for the lightning / I’m on the horizon / Well, I’m coming back with the thunder.” This song would fit in at a sporting event as a celebration for a come-from-behind win, or as a pick-me-up during all-nighters spent studying.

Lewis goes a bit more R&B and soulful on the album’s second track, “Fire Under My Feet.” Trumpets join the backing ensemble, which sounds much like that of “Thunder” otherwise. The trumpets boost the piano and drums accompanying them, giving new life to the instruments around them. A chorus is eventually added to the song’s texture as well, lending it some gospel undertones and giving Lewis a platform from which to belt out the last bars of the song. However, the belting does not work as well here as it does in “Thunder.” It sounds like Lewis gets tired halfway through an admittedly impressively long section of powerful singing, making it hard to groove along to. What’s more, the following sequence obviously sounds like it incorporates multiple takes (or just one put on loop). The end of the song loses much of the magic of the beginning.

The album’s title track, another uplifting power ballad, shows Lewis singing about affirming her own identity and autonomy. “I am with or without you / I am breathing without you / I am somebody without you / I am, I am.” If there is a common theme to this album, the phrase “I am” aptly embodies it in its purest form.

The following song, “Ladders,” is less effective, exemplifying some of the flaws on Lewis’s latest release. The metaphor employed for “Ladders” is cliché, and the song is riddled with recycled pop phrases and imagery. It is hard to knock Lewis for these flaws, however. Each song, no matter how formulaic, is crafted to uplift listeners in mind and body and does so to an almost obnoxious extent. Listeners will feel the machinery at work and want to fight it, but resistance is futile. Perhaps it is Lewis’ way of balancing original, meaningful lyrics with fluffy, recycled pop lyrics that makes her music so engaging.

“You Knew Me When” and “Thank You” contain the most tasteful nuances on “I Am,” and they punctuate the album with methodical introspection. “Thank You” is particularly captivating, as the pop diva makes use of her impressive range to express gratitude to her collaborators. “Thank you, thank you / For seeing the best and the worst of me / The angel underneath / Thank you.” The song employs the same trifecta of piano, drums and soulful backup singing as the rest of the tracks on “I Am,” and after almost a whole album of different variations on these three instruments, the pattern starts to feel restricting. “Thank You” itself is beautiful, if not necessarily creative.

That sentence more or less captures how listeners may feel about “I Am” as a whole. The album is full of perfectly listenable and uplifting tracks, some of which are sure to become power ballads in their own rights, but a whole album of them starts to feel like too much of a good thing. There just isn’t enough variation on “I Am,” a little of which would go a long way toward making it more of an exciting experience.


Summary

Leona Lewis starts strong with a classic pop diva sound ranging over four octaves, but a lack of variation makes "I Am" monotonous.

3 stars
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