If nothing else, Echo certainly establishes Leona Lewis as a singularly gifted vocalist. Not since Mariah Carey began her full-time residence on Planet Glitter has such a technically capable vocalist been found in the Top 40. Lewis’s voice combines Carey’s expansive range with a terrific tonal quality—maybe less rich than Christina’s, a bit cooler than Kelly Clarkson’s, but undeniably a talent to be reckoned with. And what’s more, Lewis’s extensive cast of producers and songwriters refrain from pulling out the most hackneyed tricks in diva-dom: You won’t hear the music dropping out to accent a ludicrous octave run, or a whole song wasted on the buildup to a big vocal finale.
The fact that Lewis can sing isn’t a novelty here—it’s the premise of the album. On nearly every track she can be found cooing impossibly high melodies over bouncing club beats (“Can’t Breathe,” “Outta My Head”) or imbuing the ballads with thick, powerful choruses to match their outsized string arrangements (“Broken”). But less compelling material, particularly in the album’s second half, finds Lewis’s talent squandered. The gooier adult contemporary numbers, of which “I Got You” is the worst, tend to add a lot of unnecessary vocal doctoring to the mix, edging on the faceless robo-pop that has become all too ubiquitous in the age of Auto-Tune. And too much of the album’s runtime is dominated by altogether thoughtless ballads, like the languid late-album duo of “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” in which Lewis confronts dull, piano-driven arrangements with vocals that, while technically unimpeachable, lack any warmth or emotional expression.
While even those tracks are moderately successful in conveying their vibes, Lewis’s own contributions come off as clinical and somewhat anonymous. She barely musters enough vulnerability to make the ballads seem heartfelt, and the types of emotions that the frothier pop numbers demand (playful? sexy?) don’t even register. Note for note, Lewis could sing Beyoncé into oblivion, but she lacks even an ounce of that reigning diva’s soul. Save for the bubbly verses on “Love Letter” and the surging coda to “Alive,” Echo is textbook-ready proof that not all great vocalists are great performers.
This could all make for the type of professional-if-forgettable pop artifact that someone like Rihanna has made a career on, were it not for a few too many mistakes on the production side. Whether it’s a chugging slow burner or an amped-up club jam, the material here is pretty unimaginative, and not a single song approaches the formidable “Bleeding Love.” I’ll leave other critics to indulge in echo puns, but suffice to say that after 13 tracks and just under an hour of music, you’ll feel as though you’ve heard some of these songs before. If indeed all of these songs had to be kept, it was unconscionable to let a solid half of them run right over the four-minute mark, usually just to take the listener through the chorus one last time.
But of all the material that begs for some judicious editing, none begs louder than the closing collaboration with OneRepublic, “Lost Then Found.” Maybe, after producing leadoff single “Happy” (not to mention “Bleeding Love”), Ryan Tedder felt he was due some time in the spotlight. His thin, soulless singing is barely tolerable in his own act, however, and paired with the phenomenal Lewis, he sounds entirely ridiculous.
In the end, Lewis’s professionalism may be her undoing. Lord knows the pop industry’s got plenty of prima donnas as it is, but without a little more edge and a lot more personality, it’s hard to see Lewis remembered as anything other than a pretty voice. Poise and virtuosity are admirable, and all too rare, but they don’t put posters on kids’ walls or put bodies in stadiums. For that, you need what Lewis’s mentor, the incorrigible Simon Cowell, refers to as the “X factor,” and Lewis has yet to prove she’s got it.