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These AOL Sessions are a strange hybrid. They contain all the trappings of a live performance but without an audience, and the control of a studio set-up but without the finesse. I’m not convinced that this is a worthy trade-off. The interests of those performers for whom only a massive amount of audio manufacturing will do (Beyonce) are nicely supported in this format, whereas those performers whose artistry is fueled by the kinesis of playing to living hearts and minds (John Legend, Pink, David) are invariably compromised. We wind up getting something slightly more spontaneous than a recording session, but not as viscerally electric as a real live performance. I feel like I’m watching tour practice. Maybe they should be called AOL Rehearsals.

By allowing him to build the songs on his own, the setting does offer a greater glimpse of the true scope of David’s vocal prowess, and provides evidence of capabilities that were often truncated, compromised, or unrecognized in the studio production rush. But even though they are eminently preferable to the overblown studio treatments, the more holistic band-backed versions do tend to point up the rather insipid nature of most of the writing. David soars but the material sinks, which results in a fairly low altitude overall. In what is quickly becoming an obvious trend, the numbers on which David had a hand in writing are here again the most successful.

I feel like I am still watching potential more than execution with David. And some of it, quite frankly, is his own fault, however exacerbated by limiting circumstances like accelerated studio schedules or live performances that live people can only see recordings of. The truth is that there is a lid on this kid that we’ve only seen blown off in rare instances: finale night, Utah concerts, Tulsa. The lid has yet to be even cracked in the studio.

In the performing arts, there is a delicate dance between control and abandon. Because music has so far been the only dimension in David’s young life where he has allowed himself any abandon at all, most of his performances are both utterly thrilling and ultimately frustrating, as they remain at some level subject to the limitations he imposes on himself in other areas. Far be it from me to imply that David should relinquish his treasured incorruptibility, but a life led with the lid on isn’t likely to be abandoned in its entirety on the stage, in the studio, or anywhere in-between.