"American Idol" fans are well aware that acerbic judge Simon Cowell doles out compliments about as often as the IRS admits mistakes. So in 2006, when he dubbed Leona Lewis one of the best singers he had ever heard, pop-music fans took notice.
One listen to her debut album "Spirit," out today in the United States, and it's obvious what impressed Cowell. Her voice is huge. Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston-Celine Dion huge. It's the kind of voice that begs for final-chorus key changes, fluttering hand gestures, and mammoth movie themes.
A breakout star in the United Kingdom, where she won "X Factor" - a Cowell-produced talent contest - the 23-year-old London native boasts impressive stats. "Spirit," executive produced by Cowell and Clive Davis, became the fastest-selling debut album in British history upon its release last year. Signs on this side of the pond are equally promising as first single "Bleeding Love" recently hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart.
That song, co-written by Ryan "Alias" Tedder of OneRepublic, with its pulsating chorus and lyrical melodrama, is representative of the entire album.
"I love those really dramatic songs," says Lewis recently on the phone from New York, where she's in full-scale promotion mode.
Indeed, "Spirit" is chock-full of them, contributed by some of pop's most reliable hit makers including chart kings Akon, Ne-Yo, and J.R. Rotem. Lewis splits the difference between the early-'90s diva template and a more contemporary, beat-driven style.
An adherence to time-tested formula means there are very few surprises here in terms of structure. The tracks are impeccably manicured, super-tuneful, and offer lyrics about the various agonies and ecstasies of love that are unremarkable in and of themselves but reach nuclear-threat levels of desperation thanks to Lewis's voice.
Which means tracks like the piano ballad "I Will Be" (which Avril Lavigne co-penned) and the "love takes time" rumination "Better in Time" are predictable yet still winning as Lewis hits her glory notes cleanly and with believable pathos. She can also do restraint, such as a moody take on Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which Lewis calls "one of my favorite songs of all time."
Lewis also takes on some R&B bounce with the buoyant "Forgive Me" and production duo StarGate's latest variation on "Irreplaceable," the breezy "Angel." Among the best of these is "I'm You," a more R&B-tinged, I-deserve-better anthem that finds Lewis employing a smoky, equally strong lower register.
"When I was growing up I listened to a lot of Minnie Riperton, Oleta Adams, and Anita Baker," she says.
"Take a Bow" should be a strong contender for a single, offering the album's best combination of classic and au courant as Lewis belts over an ebb-and-flow groove that recalls Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River."
"It's a real song song," says Lewis. "I think sometimes songs get lost today, so I enjoy singing that one."
In later years female pop stars are often heard lamenting how little control they exerted over their first album. But Lewis doesn't voice any Kelly Clarkson-style regrets over creative control.
"I felt very involved," she says. "I never sing a song that I'm not feeling, because there would be no point in that. So I'm very vocal about what I want, and Clive and Simon are very respectful of what I want. Altogether the album is one that represents me and who I am. Obviously I've still got different sides of me to come out, but I felt that this was a great introduction."