There were a lot of opportunities for Lea Michele’s debut album to go wrong.
Like her disastrous “Glee” rendition of “Baby One More Time,” it could have suffered from a clumsy, disingenuous attempt to neuter her theatrical vibe in favor of a more familiar pop sound.
Alternatively, it could have blinded itself to the contemporary music marketplace and served as a platform for Michele to exclusively sing show tunes and jazz standards.
What did not seem possible, however, was that even part of a Lea Michele album called “Louder” could come across as limp, insignificant and disconnected.
Michele’s voice, after all, packs not only an aural punch but an emotional one. Few active performers can match her passionate vocal delivery. An even smaller group can rival her ability to tell a story through song.
As long as the composition and production were competent and unobtrusive, Michele’s voice would be able to tell that story. “Louder” would be able to resonate with listeners.
The impossible has become reality.
Save for the occasional odd choice of inflection (such as her “Can-AHN Ball” in lead single “Cannonball”), Michele’s performance is neither antiquated nor awkward. She comes across like a credible, current pop performer.
The songs, meanwhile, steer clear of the big band or musical theater sounds for which Michele is best known. Some of the production is a bit gimmicky (the nod to dubstep on “On My Way”) and dated (the Robbie Williams-era Brit-pop feel of “You’re Mine”), but this is largely a credible, current pop album.
It does not, however, offer emotional resonance. Few of its compositions are compelling. The production, meanwhile, manages to ring as hollow even when Michele is singing her heart out.
Disappointing in any context, the flatness of the record is particularly perplexing given Michele’s fervent delivery.
Even more bizarre? The flatness exists despite the fact that the album’s tone was directly and retroactively shaped by the death of Cory Monteith, Michele’s boyfriend and fellow “Glee” cast member. With tragic loss fueling (or at least coloring) Michele’s already explosive emotions, there should have been no scenario in which “Louder” could feel distant.
But it does.
Composing a Disappointment
The simplest tactic is to attribute the problem to the album’s inconsistent, impersonal songwriting. Written by veteran songwriters and fellow artists (with little credited contribution from Michele herself), the songs are accommodating of Michele’s style but rarely seem tailor made for it. Instead of selecting songs that Lea Michele should sing, it appears those who built the tracklist focused on those she could sing.
And, indeed, the ill-fitting, lazy songwriting consistently plagues “Louder.” Contributors like Sia Furler created pop material on which the theatrical Michele could feel natural, but they largely forgot to consider the need to make her feel purposeful.
Songs like “Cannonball,” “You’re Mine,” “Louder” and “Don’t Let Go” all prove Michele is no longer as uncomfortable with pop as she was in the early years of “Glee,” but they simultaneously offer nothing to define the lane in which she truly belongs. Outside of some lyrical context, the songs do not feel remotely specific to Lea Michele. And no matter how hard she tries to put her stamp on the recordings, Michele never convinces listeners that these are precisely the songs she wants to sing.
Instead of revealing who she is, these songs simply offer mild confirmation that she can sing in the genre.
But impersonal songwriting, no matter how unfortunate, is not a criticism exclusive to the Lea Michele album. Many pop artists rely on committees of musicians to develop their tunes, and many of their albums feel just as transferable as “Louder.” It is undoubtedly a reason to be uninterested in the album, but it is not necessarily enough to call the songwriting a tragic disappointment.
What is tragic, however, is the absence of emotional escalation in so many of the tunes. Lea Michele is a bombastic, passionate, theatrical performer. That so few of her songs crescendo or feature narrative journeys whatsoever is a blatant waste of her talent and blatant proof that this is not the best album she could have released.
Occasionally compelling–but often overproduced–at the onset, the songs never develop the way they should. The Sia Furler-penned, theoretically gorgeous ballad “Battlefield” starts beautifully but ultimately goes nowhere. In the ultimate irony, Michele’s “Louder” cannot even find a way to get loud, bold or intense on the chorus.
Fairly flat throughout, lead single “Cannonball” does not even rise for a powerhouse bridge or dramatic finale. The entire song is basically composed of loops. “Don’t Let Go” fits the same mold. And while Michele seems like she’s ready to break out at various points on “On My Way,” the claustrophic, obtrusive production reels her in at all the wrong times.
When developing a track for someone like Lea Michele, there is simply no justification for dampening the drama and storytelling. Consequently, when listening to songs like “Cannonball,” “On My Way,” “Battlefield,” “You’re Mine,” “Louder” and “Don’t Let Go,” there is no way to avoid lamenting over the missed opportunities.
And if one needs help understanding the magnitude of those missed opportunities, he is advised to listen to “Louder” standouts “Empty Handed,” “Burn With You” and “If You Say So.”
Writing for Lea Works for Lea
Bold, theatrical and overflowing with emotion, Christina Perri, moreso than any pop artist, represented the perfect writing partner for Lea Michele. While so many singers and songwriters welcome constraint, Perri layers her poignant vocals and lyrics over simple instrumental compositions. She removes walls and boxes and allows her voice to guide the journey.
That is exactly what Lea Michele should be doing on her album. And it is an utter shame that while Sia, despite demonstrating a limited understanding of what works for Michele, has four tracks on the album, Perri only has one.
But Perri’s one is the absolute standout. One would be lying if he did not think “Empty Handed” sounded like something Perri could sing herself, but by presenting an open, escalating atmosphere for the “Glee” Diva to control, it ultimately emerges as the most authentic, honest, emotional Lea Michele experience on the album. Structured like an early Coldplay ballad, the piece slowly crescendos without ever interfering or even affecting Michele’s poignant storytelling. She sells it beautifully because, unlike so much of “Louder,” she does not have to dampen herself to do so. She does not have to change herself to do so.
Featuring writing from Chantal Kreviazuk (Carrie Underwood’s “Unapologize,” David Cook’s “Permanent”), “Burn with You” is not quite as powerful but still quite effective in providing a platform for Lea Michele to be Lea Michele.
A favorite of the late Cory Monteith, “Burn” deserves particular credit for enabling Michele to convey her passion, explore various vocal textures and sing weighty lyrics like “I don’t want to go to Heaven/If you’re going to hell/I will burn with you” over a simple, Ryan Tedder-esque production. Moreso than even the musically superior “Empty Handed,” it proves there is a way to be true to pop and true to Lea Michele.
Co-written with Michele herself, “If You Say So” represents Sia’s best contribution to “Louder.” The Cory Monteith tribute is not the most musically ambitious song on the album, but it is definitely one of the most engaging and memorable “Louder” tracks.
A simple, gut-wrenching exploration of her soulmate’s passing, “If You Say So” proves that while Michele might have honed her craft in the theater, her delivery does not hinge on pretense. Real heartbreak, agony and longing do far more to color the singer’s voice than any script or characterization ever could.
While the album’s highs are owed to effective songwriting and lows ascribable to impersonal songwriting, Michele is not simply a passive agent on this album. Her haunting vocal intensity makes the three standouts particularly special, and her effort assures that even the album’s generic tracks are listenable.
But her contribution to “Louder” was not perfect. Always intense, Michele does occasionally overlook opportunities to have fun on songs like “Louder” and “On My Way.” The songs were irrefutably wrong for her and undoubtedly incompatible with her strengths as an artist, but that does not mean she could not have done more to adapt to their convivial nature.
The opportunity for passion and drama is present on “Thousand Needles,” but Michele’s shouty, monotonous delivery serves to squander it. The performance would win support on “American Idol,” but it fails in its attempt to offer an intimate look at what drives Lea Michele.
And though it plays to her vocal strengths better than many of the tracks, her co-written “Cue the Rain” is simply not a compelling song. It is pure album filler.
Loud, Unanswered Questions
Getting to hear Lea Michele’s powerhouse, instantly identifiable voice in a legitimate pop setting will be a dream come true for many fans. This is not a novelty album. This is not a retro album. It is a meaningful, listenable pop album that proves she can compete–and, at times, excel–in a crowded female pop atmosphere.
But it fails to prove why she needs to compete. Ahead of its release, it is doubtful many Lea Michele fans–or general music fans–believed her unable to sing innocuous pop songs written by innocuous pop songwriters.
What they might have doubted–or at least been curious to understand–is why Lea Michele needed to do so. Why is she a necessary fit for the pop market, and what can she do to truly make her mark.
Outside of “Empty Handed,” “Burn With You” and “If You Say So,” those questions are left unanswered by “Louder.”
Lea Michele’s “Louder” releases in the US during the week of March 3.
“Louder” Track Listing
2) On My Way
3) Burn With You
5) You’re Mine
6) Thousand Needles
8) Cue the Rain
9) Don’t Let Go
10) Empty Handed
11) If You Say So