The Joe McElderry of present is not the same Joe McElderry we met last year. Back then, he was the fresh-faced winner of the UK's X-Factor, a graduate of the David Archuleta school of impeccable, if ultimately safe, balladeering. When 'The Climb' was chosen as his winning single, it seemed like a foregone conclusion the path Joe's music career was going to take. But then something happened. Former constraints in his personal life were lifted and, suddenly, Joe wasn't the same person anymore. He couldn't go on doing the same music he was doing before; it would almost be like he was cheating himself.
Welcome to Wide Awake, Joe's debut album and launching pad for his brand new sound. Right away, the album feels like a compromise between Joe and executive producer Simon Cowell. As I've said before, Simon isn't a stranger to experimentation, as Alexandra's CD and Leona's 'Outta My Head' proved, but you know he wanted some insurance tracks in case the new material didn't work out. Hence we have 'The Climb' making an appearance on here, as well as a cover of the Five for Fighting hit 'Superman (It's Not Easy)' and the tender title track. These tracks are fine in their own way, but, unsurprisingly, it's on the "experimental" tracks where Joe truly shines. With influences as varied as ABBA (the excessively distorted bridge of 'Someone Wake Me Up' sounds similar to their 'Under Attack'), Alphabeat ('Feel the Fire' is blatantly reminiscent of 'Fascination') and the Scissor Sisters (he seems to be taking cues from Jake Shears, thankfully with none of his tiresome shtick, on 'Fahrenheit'), Joe is trying out different styles to see what suits him best.
(Side Note: Curiously enough, all the groups I mentioned as Joe's influences are male/female groups, two of which contain a male and a female who share the vocal work equally. Is Joe making a comment on gender and sexuality by mining these artists? Probably not, but it's an interesting observation.)
Two of the biggest complaints I've heard about Wide Awake is that there are too many covers and that there is too much Auto Tune/vocal distortion covering Joe's voice. I agree that five covers on an album of 11 tracks is perhaps a tad excessive but I think Joe is smart about the songs he chooses to cover. Sure, 'The Climb' and 'Superman' are hardly the most exciting choices but they are a good deal more interesting and contemporary than some of the snoozers Simon usually likes (how tiresome would covers of 'You Are So Beautiful to Me' and 'Unchained Melody' have been in comparison?). And if these two songs deserve any praise, Joe's 'The Climb' works better than Miley's because he's a much a stronger vocalist (and you need good pipes to make that song digestible) and 'Superman' makes for an interesting commentary on Joe's sexuality in the public eye ("I'm only a man/In a silly red sheet"). 'Smile' is a cover of an Uncle Kracker song and I'm impressed that you would never guess in a million years that Joe's version was once sung by the same guy who did 'Follow Me.' As for 'Ambitions' and 'Real Late Starter,' these recent songs have their ardent fans but I like that Joe went for little known songs instead of something as obvious as Lady GaGa. And in the case of 'Ambitions,' the song is actually quite different than the original if you listen carefully. You may not like the direction he took, but you can't say it's a copycat version.
As for the Auto Tune criticisms, I'm a little less understanding. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people criticize Auto Tune for "covering up" "untalented" singers with weak voices or drowning a talented singer's great voice. I've said it before and I'll say it again: AUTO TUNE IS NOT THE ENEMY. It is nothing but a stylistic choice. Many weaker singers got by before it (hello early Madonna) and many others have after (RiRi!). Britney uses it all the time these days but she didn't always (remember how she pretended she was a singer on the ...Baby One More Time album?). It's nothing but a fad that may or may not be here in a few years. There's no mistaking that Joe is a great singer, but the the insinuation he's trying to cover something is insulting. He's experimenting with a brand new sound for him. Would 'Fahrenheit' be as great of a song without all the Auto Tune? I don't think so.
Joe McElderry certainly has a lot of room to grow as an artist, but Wide Awake shows a lot of promise and is a confident step in the right direction for him. He's only 19, but I think he's well on his way to finding himself as both a musical artist and a man.