Review Summary: I guess you'd better go and get your armour.
Music is a sucker for appeals to popularity; the singles charts are hyped as a reflection of the best music available, selling out stadium gigs is a sign that you're musically talented and bands seem to get better and worse overnight depending on the success of their label's latest publicity stunt. But even inside music, there's one area where the idea of base-level popularity equating to talent is shamelessly celebrated and played upon, and that's the whole Idol
fad. Acts compete for the momentary, diluted appreciation of a television audience and the person that comes out having offended or unsettled the least number of people tends to be crowned Winner Of All Music For The Coming Year. What this inevitably creates is the necessity to continue that initial, wide-reaching accessibility in order to be regarded as successful or profitable. Welcome to the world of Jordin Sparks, 19 years old and already releasing her second full-length album.
Sitting as a kind of halfway house between Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce, Sparks nevertheless seems unwilling to let the pressure created by her American Idol 6 victory and her more recent duet with Chris Brown take over the creative process. Lead single and title-track Battlefield doesn't give as much away, though, a massive, epic pop song which lives off its huge drums and distant piano. Sounding like a hybrid of the two aforementioned vocalists, her emphatic delivery is fitting for a song which sounds like a statement of intent, building and dropping through repeated pre-choruses and choruses, including the brilliant bridge line, "I guess you'd better go and get your armour." It's emotional, pristinely produced and way better than anything she's released to this point. Unfortunately, every copy the album sells off the back of its lead single will be a slightly confused first listen. While there are certainly other songs in the same vein, they're markedly less cinematic (Watch You Go) or less up-tempo (It Takes More), although both are still very passable attempts at RnB-pop writing.
More than that, though, the four songs here which Sparks co-wrote all sit right at the latter end of the album (discounting bonus tracks), and the later three of them take a drastically softer tone than the 8 previous tracks, which creates a strange lack of balance. To add to the multiple personality syndrome, there's the fairly terrible S.O.S, which sounds like something Britney Spears threw away and samples the chorus and subtitle of Shannon's Let The Music Play. Fortunately, it's the only track on Battlefield which fails to make any sort of impression. No Parade's music-box opening piano line is heartfelt and its chorus of, There was no parade; no lights flashing; no song to sing along the way
comes across as a pre-cursor to the final quartet, and arguably is the record's stand-out. Sparks' cover of Fefe Dobson's Don't Let It Go To Your Head is well executed, typically percussion-heavy and straightforward pop delight. Even Emergency (911) boasts a brilliant beat, despite the song's overall generic RnB-dance feel.
It's a shame that the production of Battlefield's more tender moments utilises the same echoes and shiny finish that elsewhere make up for a lack of musical substance, because when the instrumentation behind Sparks is most sparse she sounds like she could easily handle it without being layered to infinity and back. Fortunately, it fails to truly mar the album's most affecting passages; Jordin Sparks herself makes sure of it, putting in performances as delicate as on Faith (over a picked acoustic guitar) and as powerful as on the lead single without seeming like two different people. The music that supports her is less consistent, sure, but if there's something holding Battlefield back it's not the vocalist, but rather the lack of direction and the desire to please everybody that comes with a record deal from American Idol. At the end of the day, her sophomore release is top-heavy with chart hits but actually largely bottom-loaded with its most impressive material, and that implies that Sparks' own music and ideas have a great deal of potential. There's no telling whether independence would see her struggle without a team of writers or flourish with the freedom, but Battlefield is at its best when it's not pretending.