The return of The X Factor this year was heavily trailed by a series of adverts wherein previous contestants spoke about how the show had changed their lives. Inadvertently, these highlighted the lack of enduring stars which the show has produced. Even by the time of their broadcast it was clear that the pop careers of Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis were in terminal decline, while Olly Murs is better known as a TV presenter than a pop star.
JLS stood out as the one still-relevant act from the show’s past – yet the presence of One Direction illustrated the dangers of the often-fickle pop audience. While they have all achieved platinum sales in the UK, each of JLS’ previous three albums has sold less than the one before, and it’s exactly a year since they reached the Top 5 of the singles chart. Evolution, then, feels like a watershed album in determining JLS’ future and their talk of its ‘mature’ sound suggests they’re aware of the high stakes involved.
Perhaps with an eye on the startling US success of One Direction and The Wanted, JLS have worked with some big name producers on this album, not least the legendary Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. In fact this album is so tailored toward an American audience that it’s practically jumping up and down shouting ‘PLEASE LIKE US, AMERICA!’ Of course, the last time a successful British pop group turned to Darkchild to Americanise their sound, it resulted in the career-ending disaster that was Spice Girls‘ Forever. If that was a remarkably ill-conceived change of direction, however, JLS are clearly more suited to what they call a ‘grown-up R&B’ sound and their fans will find nothing particularly surprising here.
Lead single Hottest Girl In The World is a perfect representation of Evolution, its persuasive slickness suggesting that those still pining for a third Justin Timberlake album could do worse than to give this a listen. The song shares its pre-occupation with girls who ‘look fine’ but don’t ‘know how amazing’ they are with at least half the album – if they’ve ‘matured’ sonically, their lyrics are firmly stuck in traditional boy band territory.
Nonetheless, the ascent of One Direction’s coy wetness can’t help but make JLS seem like a more vigorous proposition in comparison. They sound irrepressibly on heat but it’s a convincing lustiness. The obsession with going ‘all the way’ does lead to some unintentionally hilarious moments – album opener Dessert kicks off with the dreadful line “Girl, you’re looking like a menu/Everything on you looks good to me” and the metaphor only gets more pained as it goes on. Yet the song contains a one-line interpolation of Silk‘s Freak Me which is more successful than the entire Another Level cover, demonstrating how at ease JLS sound in this glossy environment.
Given the collaborators here, the production is inevitably top-notch. At times, as on the stomping sugar rush of Give Me Life or future dancefloor anthem All The Way, it’s genuinely thrilling. For all that, the album suffers from an undeniable crisis of identity. JLS’ voices are frequently auto-tuned and processed to distraction, a hindrance on songs which already recall Timberlake, Usher and Ne-Yo. The obligatory ode to self-esteem Hold Me Down is a welcome change in that, being heavily reminiscent of Emeli Sandé‘s Next To Me, it at least stands out from the efficient robo-pop surrounding it.
Still, it’s an achievement in itself that while Evolution invokes all of these artists it never feels wanting as a result. As an exercise in not-so-subtle re-positioning the album is never less than effective and its high-points are more interesting and persuasive than most of JLS’ peers. On that basis alone, the album is a success; which suggests JLS more than deserve the international success they so obviously crave.