By the law of averages, talent-show telly has to throw up at least one genuinely serviceable talent every ten years or so, and Rebecca Ferguson is surely that one. Although typically, she didn't win the contest, despite the support of high-profile fans such as Adele - who admitted she voted for Ferguson about 80 times.
It's not hard to understand why: there's a hard central core of reality, of real lived experience, running through these ten songs that's almost diametrically opposed to the usual soul-diva cliches promoted by shows like The X Factor. And Ferguson herself likewise avoids the showboating vocal frippery by which some contestants aim to brandish their technique. Instead, she trusts her heart to take her vocal where it needs to go, whether it's the tremulous gospel-soul flavour, reminiscent of Tracy Chapman, with which in "Nothing's Real But Love" she assures us that "nobody, no house, no car, can beat love"; or the ingenue charm, akin to the young Carla Thomas, with which she demands of "Mr Bright Eyes", "...where you been all my life?"
The actual subject matter of her songs sticks to the familiar R&B itinerary of love found, love lost and love unrequited, of betrayal and friendship, break-up and make-up. But Ferguson manages to bring a fresh eye to them, simply by being unflinchingly honest. In "Glitter & Gold", which has something of the rolling momentum of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep", she ponders the comparative values of success and friendship, the fragile balance between drive and downtime, and the fellowship required to work through hardship: "Those friends who were such a chore, well you're gonna need them like never before". And behind the teenage emotional turmoil of "Teach Me How To Be Loved" lies the hard-won experience of a woman who twice found herself a single parent before she was in her twenties.
As is customary in modern R&B, Ferguson's successes are built on a solid foundation of soul touchstones, from the sinuous bass strut that drives "Run Free" in the footsteps of "Billie Jean", to the symphonic funk melodrama of "Fighting Suspicions", so strongly redolent of Curtis Mayfield's great '70s social-protest soul works. But the best track is "Shoulder To Shoulder", a dissection of co-dependent disharmony in which the rippling piano, strings, and vocal come in relentless waves, as if the linkage of affection and arguments were somehow inevitable, a necessary chain-mail armour against the pressures of the outside world.
"We cling to each other, shoulder to shoulder, against the world," she sings, "So I wanna drag you down as you drag me down, and I'm gonna shout at you as you shout at me, until we realise that real love is free". It's a gut-wrenching admission which ultimately leads to a resolution to escape the downward spiral of mutual animosity - a suitably mature conclusion for a song, and an album, that restores to R&B some of the adult concerns that powered the genre through its '70s golden era.
Download this: Shoulder To Shoulder; Nothing's Real But Love; Glitter & Gold; Mr Bright Eyes; Fighting Suspicions
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