I blame Madonna.
Ever since Madge made production paramount to performance in pop music, the voice has played an increasingly diminished role for all but the boldest of virtuosos. Over the two decades since this sublimation began, arrangers and producers have not only become increasingly adept at making up for a lack of vocal prowess with production technique, they have correspondingly become inept at properly managing true vocal nuance when it happens to show up in the studio. For all its accomplishments, much of this production treats its eponymous star like an ingredient rather than as the main course.
David Archuleta is mainly a bright, engaging compendium of smart, solid pop and pop-rock material that showcases the teenager’s impressive skills as a singer, songwriter, and collaborator. What the album may lack in coherence it makes up for in variety, even if it does, inexplicably, lack even one soaring power ballad of the type that might have been prodigious on a David Archuleta CD. Indeed, the album seems an almost strategic refutation of expectations (this from an artist who claimed to be entirely devoid of competitive strategy during his American Idol participation).
Unlike previous show finalists (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) who were rushed through the post-show studio meat-grinder and managed to release albums with enough coherence and virtuosity to please both critics and audiences alike, David is not as easily defined by existing genre categories. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have an innate ability to step into a genre and make a success of it on his own terms (a skill that was under-appreciated during his season on Idol), but that the possibility for a quick and perfect match between the talent and the market is much reduced. Given the potential for such an uneasy fit, the album is a victory. But it comes at a cost.
Through all of his humility, his reluctance to be considered a star or even the center of attention, David is nothing if not game. Whether it’s agreeing to sign all manner of odd items including body parts for fans, dancing “the Wiggelow” with an entire Catholic girls’ school, or cheerfully answering the most inane and impertinent of interview questions, David meets every request with thoughtfulness and generosity. But it took more than a thoroughgoing attitude to prove that he could channel the enormous scope of his talent into the somewhat stringent parameters of contemporary pop music. There were the inevitable difficulties. He got so frustrated with the process at one point that he reportedly wondered aloud how he could consider giving up after God had offered him all this opportunity. Some of that frustration led to explosions of creativity: When he realized there were too few solid song choices from the material offered, he decided to write his own. Several of his compositions and collaborations are now included on the CD, or slated as premium release bonus tracks.
David more than shows up his early critics who dismissed his potential to serve up radio-ready fare with the hit single “Crush” right out of the gate. There is a good handful of potential subsequent singles including “A Little Too Not Over You,” an insanely catchy number that David collaborated on; “Touch My Hand,” another collaboration that sounds like a cross between Coldplay and Sheryl Crow; “Barriers,” my personal least favorite cut, but an arm-waver that is likely to be a young crowd pleaser; and “To Be With You,” which, despite the fact that I am thoroughly unqualified to make assessments about the contemporary pop music market, may well turn out to be the largest-selling single off the album. It’s the only track on the standard issue CD that comes close to showcasing what David does better than almost anyone else, and what the public will inevitably come to treasure him for. The inimitable Archie heart connection is in this one. It’s powerful, even despite the stultifyingly generic arrangement and the unnecessary duet treatment on the chorus (it should be illegal to pair David’s voice with anyone else’s).
The one song that offers a tantalizing glimpse of where David might go musically when he has the time and credibility to ignore conventional parameters is “Desperate,” which sounds as if it belongs on a different album altogether–a more mature album, one with fewer capitulations to current trends. For such a sweet and unassuming guy, David does darkness extremely well. I happen to believe that one of the reasons his “uplifting” songs work as well as they do–“Angels,” “Imagine”–is because of an underlying melancholy, symbolized by that cry in his voice; the feeling that in grace lies an awareness of suffering.
In trying to package a talent as unique and prodigious as David Archuleta, even the most capable effort can wind up feeling inhibited. Add to this the preposterous schedule mandated by a production driven more by revenue opportunity than by artistic integrity, and it is perhaps surprising that David’s first major recording effort is as satisfying as it is. Still, time matters, and would have undoubtedly brought even this material to a stronger place. The ability to accelerate his own creative process was undoubtedly helped by the performance demands of new material every week on AI, but David remains an artist whose work benefits from a slight saturation of time. Look at how “Angels,” which was already an anthem, evolved over the course of the tour to become, in Tulsa, an all-out, jaw-dropping event. In contrast to many of his pop music peers, David is fundamentally a live performance artist. The connection he establishes with his audience is for him a creative conduit. David should ultimately be one of those artists who develops his material in concert and then records, rather than the prevailing reverse route, valued for its higher revenue potential.
I like the album. But what I like about it doesn’t necessarily have a whole lot to do with what I love about David Archuleta. I look it this way: Would I have recognized what I now understand to be the virtues of a once-in-a-generation performer from this collection alone? Not likely. David’s voice, with its enormous nuance and subtlety, is given somewhat short shrift in this collection. Does this material prove that David can be successful, perhaps even consequential, as a standard-fare pop star? Sure. And although I may fully understand and even completely agree why it makes sense at this point to package filet mignon as hamburger, it doesn’t mean I have to love the idea.