Cheryl: A Million Lights (Album Review)

How do you think Cheryl feels when you call her name? Well, for one thing: She’d like you to get it right.

To the bemusement of most media outlets (and the annoyance of OCD iTunes organizers everywhere), the Girls Aloud songstress has undergone a slight image revamp: A Million Lights is by Cheryl. Just Cheryl. After two solo albums, she’s no longer going by Cheryl Cole (her former married name) nor Cheryl Tweedy (her maiden name), but singularly Cheryl, like Madonna. Or Cher. Except, you know, nothing like them at all.

And apart from (or perhaps inspired by) the name change, there’s also been a change in her sound since her last effort in 2010: It’s (mostly) good again!

When Cheryl became the first of the almighty Girls Aloud to venture into solo territory with her debut in 2009, she came swinging: The 3 Words campaign was a solid collection of R&B-laced pop (“Fight For This Love”), throbbing dance (“3 Words”) and dramatic, waltzing midtempos (“Parachute”). Accompanied by some truly stunning videos and spotlight-stealing live performances (literally–she shut down the X Factor UK stage with her million soldier performance of “Fight For This Love,” on which she was judging at the time), Queen Cheryl utterly slayed with her first solo effort.

Then, the misfire: Only a year later, Cheryl released Messy Little Raindrops, an appallingly weak follow-up record wrought with terrible balladry, tired uptempos and way, way, way too many introspective “moments.” Sure, there was “Promise This,” another stormer of a lead single (and an equally amazing live performance on X Factor in 2010), but the album itself was a complete dud. (Musically speaking, anyway–it still managed to hit #1.) Whether a case of poor A&R or the result of a life-threatening bout with malaria (that happened), Cheryl, one-fifth of the greatest British girl group since the Spice Girls, was getting it so thoroughly wrong.

Mercifully, someone’s handed Cheryl a few tissues (and a few strobe lights) for her third go-around.

Things already seemed infinitely brighter when it was revealed that Chezza’s upcoming comeback single was crafted by Scottish DJ/producer, Calvin Harris. And in true Chezza form, the lead single turned out to be an absolute smash: Complimented by a euphoric, explosive Ibiza-ready pulsations and some flourishes of early ’90’s House, “Call My Name” came thundering into the clubs as Cheryl’s first true EDM smash–though not without some criticism for sounding a little too much like Rihanna‘s own Harris-produced 2011 global hit, “We Found Love.”

But as PopJustice so accurately described, the song was a grower: It played far too much like “We Found Love” on first listen, became Cheryl’s own “We Found Love” on second listen, and by the third or fourth replay, had almost nothing in common with “We Found Love” at all, apart from being a massive dance floor anthem (and as of this week, the fastest-selling single of 2012 in the UK.)

To craft her third collection of tunes, Cheryl headed into the studio with a mixture of tried-and-true pop titans like Alex Da Kid and Jim Beanz, who’s crafted bangers for everyone from Danity Kane to Ciara, as well as much of Britney‘s masterpiece, Blackout.

“Sexy Den A Mutha,” one of Beanz’s two contributions on the standard disc, is–hands down–the highlight of the album. Apart from the embarrassingly “hip” lyrics, the chilly club anthem–which plays like a steroid-enhanced “Yeah Yeah” (one of the very few gems off of Raindrops) and contains shades of Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Britney’s “Till The World Ends” and Katharine McPhee‘s “Touch Me”–is probably one of the best songs Cheryl’s ever recorded in her solo career.

Apart from “Call My Name” And “Sexy Den A Mutha” however, a majority of A Million Lights is coated in thick, wobbling dubstep beats. If it’s any credit to her “authenticity,” Cheryl’s enlisted a host of actual UK grime acts to craft her dabblings in dub-pop, including Agent X and HyGrade: The former’s contribution, “Screw You” (which features Wretch 32), is another highlight, as Chezza puts on a scowl and flips off her former lover (is it for Ashley Cole? Interpret as you will!) on a deliciously dub-heavy number that would make her mentee, bratty sensation Cher Lloyd, beam with pride: “After everything, gave you everything, I lost everything/Love is so lonely now,” Cheryl cries out before the song’s hectic beats come pouring into the speakers.

There are, however, more than a few moments that tend to drag throughout, largely due to the songstress herself. Album opener “Under The Sun,” for instance, proves that no matter how talented the songwriters are (thanks, Jackie Boyz), or how smooth the production value is (thanks, Alex Da Kid), there’s still a nagging truth that presents itself with every Cheryl album: Her voice just isn’t very good.

To be honest, it’s barely passable. While talentless socialites and reality TV housewives have had their voices smoothed over to an Auto-Tuned level of decency (albeit to the tune of millions of dollars), Cole’s limited, single octave yelping remains flatter than a can of Pepsi that’s been lying out at Nadine’s Irish Mist for a week. (Have you seen the live performance of this song on T4? Dear God. With all the bitching about lip-syncing, why do we have CHERYL taking the high road?) Frankly, there’s a reason she makes a better girl group member than a solo star.

“Love Killer,” another example of a song with solid hooks and top-notch dub production (courtesy of Swedish House duo Dada Life), limps along painfully as Cheryl’s voice weakly pleads across the song’s chorus. “Why do I love you so much when you’re a love killer?” she declares shrilly. Promise this: It’s a tune if you concentrate really, really hard on the melody.

As a direct result of her…limitations, balladry has certainly never been Cheryl’s, uh, strength. (Need I remind anyone of “Raindrops”? Hard to forget.)

Nonetheless, she’s incredibly found a winning formula on at least a few of the ballads on A Million Lights, especially the soldiering, dub-infused title track: “I don’t know how we fell through/Got a little too much in my head, like I miss you,” Cheryl slowly croons above the grimey beats of the chorus. It’s controlled, understated and–dare, I say–genuinely gorgeous. “Mechanics Of The Heart,” a piano-led, slow-skipping ballad with speckles of electronica, also suits Chezza’s lower register nicely.

As if to answer that much-needed call to do something about that delivery, the ever-lovely Lana Del Rey appears midway through (in songwriter form, anyway) to provide one of the album’s–and one of Cheryl’s–most unique vocals: “Ghetto Baby,” a slow-skipping hip-pop number that broods with Lana’s us-against-the-world mixture of coquettish purrs and bad girl bossiness. “I know you’re sick, boy/I wanna get the flu/I’m running temperatures thinking of your love boo,” Cheryl slowly raps, putting her own spin on Lana’s signature styling. It works well–even if it’s Lana’s voice clearly reverberating in each word.

Along with Lana’s song, there’s also some–dare I say–bolder, more experimental numbers, including “All Is Fair” (the other Beanz production), an army imagery-addled slow-burner which treads along on a minimal bongo beat (which, production-wise, evokes Beyonce‘s 4): “This is war/They don’t really care about us,” Cheryl declares with a fist raised high, standing in solidarity with her legions of dedicated fans–the Cheryl Soldiers.

A Million Lights is a good, occasionally great album with some major highlights sprinkled into the mix, putting it about on par with her debut, and certainly a million times more convincing than her dreadful 2010 follow-up attempt. Sure, the entire set is sort of a smorgasbord of rehashed pop trends of the past two years–dubstep breakdowns, Calvin Harris smashes–and Cheryl’s voice has never exactly been a selling point, but there’s enough solid production and pop penmanship to keep the album interesting…at least for a few weeks.

If nothing else, it’s a nice distraction until Girls Aloud finally regroups, rights every pop wrong of the past three years, and reminds us all of why Cheryl’s earned the right to chuck out half-decent solo albums yearly in the first place.

A Million Lights was released on June 18. (iTunes)

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