x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Jordan Sparks: Battlefield

Jordin Sparks releases a catchy, enjoyable second effort of pop, electronic and rock music.


Jordin Sparks, Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson - a raft of seemingly interchangeable punchy popstrels have swept the charts of late - all singing of surviving heartbreak with the same breathy yearning. Sparks, like Clarkson, is a product of American Idol, having won the sixth series with a record-breaking 74 million votes in 2007. And clearly she is on the same road as her predecessor, moving among R&B, pop and the odd "fierce" warbling with all the dexterity you'd expect from a talent show winner.

Unlike their British counterparts, of whom only Leona Lewis has really achieved worldwide musical success, American Idol winners seem to be able to combine an element of credibility with pop appeal. Clarkson, the first season winner, can't move for Grammys. Neither can Carrie Underwood, the season four winner. And then there's Jennifer Hudson, who was a finalist in the third series, and has since gone on to break into acting, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, as well as a Grammy for her eponymous 2008 album.

Sparks looks set to continue the trend. Her self-titled 2007 debut album sold around 1.5 million copies. And her recent collaboration with Chris Brown on the song No Air was Grammy nominated. Perhaps, then, it was growing confidence that led her to speak out in defence of the Jonas Brothers at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards when the British comedian Russell Brand sniggered at their clean-cut image. It went down a storm with the "sparkplugs (as her fan base is known) and upped her international profile.

And so to her new album, Battlefield. Most of us have probably heard the title track on the air waves of late, in which she asks or rather, pleads: "Why does love always feel like a battlefield?" Can love really be that hard at 19, one wonders (she was only 17 when she won American Idol). But for all its jadedness, it's not a bad pop tune. In fact, the album is full of songs that sound like they should have been sung by Whitney Houston - or at least someone who's been through the mill a bit - rather than an innocent teenager. Purely on a musical level, however, they are fun, catchy and, for the most part, entertaining. With some of the writing and production credit going to the One Republic frontman, Ryan Tedder, who wrote Leona Lewis's Bleeding Love and Beyoncé's Halo, it's not hard to see why.

Three of the songs even boast Sparks's name among the writing credits, one of which, Emergency (911) is a guitar-laced shot of peppy pop. "You know my ringtone / why don't you answer the phone," she sings, with more than a hint of Britney. On SOS (Let the Music Play), another of the better pop tracks, the similarity is even more evident, her voice intermittently piped amid a slamming electro beat. It is these types of songs that make the album work - fun, contemporary pop with a sense of humour. Inevitably, though, Sparks can't resist a bit of drama. And several schmaltzy ballads, including Was I the Only One and Faith are tedious cheese-fests that will light up no-one other than the keenest of sparkplugs.

There is, however, an interesting middle ground, in which more potential warbling has been saved by clever production. A drum and bass backing on Watch You Go keeps things fresh. And No Parade, which, from the open piano tinkling, bodes badly, is given a sprinkling of lasers to spice it up. As for Sparks's vocals, they're relaxed and polished. You don't, after all, get 74 million votes for nothing. And, unlike some of her ilk, she knows when to turn it down. In Let It Rain, she seems to actually quiver with emotion.

Touring with the Jonas Brothers has so far given Sparks a squeaky clean reputation - something she clearly wants to perpetuate with Battlefield. It's a solid second album, certainly, but for all its swoons and lasers, she never really lets go of the handrail. Let's hope she gets sparkier on the next one. kboucher@thenational.ae