Sparks struggles to deliver in rocky Battlefield

Jordin Sparks’ sophomore album since winning American Idol is by no means a slump. Her debut album wavered between esoteric pop and bland noncommittal fluff expected of an American Idol contestant. The new Battlefield is mostly a standard blend of R&B and pop and only succeeds because of Sparks’ vocal ability.

She delivers rock-solid performances and never wavers nor struggles. Yet for every exceptional performance, there are several more instances of overdramatic, overwrought, off-putting, contrived emotion. Nevertheless, Sparks does not resort to standard, tired runs everyone has heard over and over. It makes the album a little bit fresher and more interesting. Sparks never sounds like she is showing off. She is never self-conscience nor self-involved with her abilities.

The more pop-rooted tracks actually fall flat because of Sparks’ voice. Her voice is too powerful and pure and does not match the instrumentation. She is literally too talented for easily sung songs.

Sparks sounds very mature and beyond her years. She does not sound like a teenager and has more control and skill than a lot of pop divas. She never sounds strained and soars without stress. She does not shy away from any vocal challenge and takes it all head on, unlike many of her contemporaries that rely on tricks and magic to sell a song. For example, Sparks sounds like a human, unlike Leona Lewis, who cannot emote without a whine and a hiccup.

The latter half of the album is really where the music becomes delightful. The contrived instrumentation of the pop songs falls away and the purity and power of Sparks’ voice rises above the mud and the mire and moves the listener. The instrumentation becomes standard, pedestrian, and almost bland, but leaves more attention to be paid to Sparks.

“No Parade” is a cross between R&B and pop and could have been one of those easily forgotten songs from a more forgettable name. However, Sparks is able to infuse the track with the perfect blend of emotion, skill and restraint. Lyrically, it is average; it has no particular insight and should not be examined alone.

“Let It Rain” follows “No Parade” with good emotion and too much control. However, it is one of the few purely pop songs that work. She is in control while still offering some peculiarity required by pop.

“Emergency (911)” is co-written by Sparks. It is an overproduced mess. It is hard to get a foothold on the song because it moves too quickly but is also too repetitive.

The production is great, but it is too much at times. It would seem that this is what is supposed to keep the song moving, but it does not. The song itself sounds like a loop and then ends without consequence.

“Faith” is also co-written by Sparks and is the most understated and simple song on the album. It allows Sparks’ voice to retain focus and supports it when necessary. The song starts softly and swells to an uplifting, cheery ending. The song itself is a little cliché, but it works just fine in context. It might be a little sappy, but as one part to the album, it works. Sparks’ voice is the most free here, which is very refreshing after an album of control and perfection.

Battlefield is not just another American Idol winner’s shame. It is a solid album by a singer yet to fully develop and find her niche.

Even while leaving several stylistic doors open, Sparks is able to own them all. There are weak spots, but there are equally many strong ones.

This album is not a showcase of skills but instead is a heartfelt window into an artist.