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LISTENING STATION: Adam Lambert, Willie Nelson
Question of the Day
Formerly a launching pad for the Kelly Clarksons and Carrie Underwoods of the world, “American Idol” has slipped in recent years. Gone are the powerhouse vocalists and larger-than-life personalities. Instead, the show has spent its past two seasons crowning winners such as Lee DeWyze and Scotty McCreery, two mild-mannered everymen who can carry a fine tune but rarely, if ever, bring the house down.
Adam Lambert is cut from a different cloth. He may not have won the competition in 2009 — that honor went to Kris Allen, another member of the everyman pack — but he’s one of the best vocalists to emerge from the show in at least five years, with a range as broad as the Appalachians and a tone that sounds like Freddie Mercury’s Broadway-trained cousin after a night of heavy drinking.
He’s gay, too, a fact that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with his art but has everything to do with “Trespassing,” his second studio album.
These songs are steeped in contemporary R&B, ‘80s hair metal, glittery dance-pop and modern-day club culture. Some are about the same subjects that fill most 21st century pop anthems: parties, relationships and general hedonism. Others tackle heavier topics, from gay marriage to gender politics.
A laundry list of producers and songwriters receive credit for their work on “Trespassing.” On an album filled with names such as Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams, though, Mr. Lambert is still the incontestable star, serving as an executive producer — a rarity in the world of pop music, and an unprecedented honor for anyone still under the tightly controlled supervision of “American Idol” — and co-writing most of the songs. He steals the show with his supersized vocals, too.
Oh, that voice. It howls like a banshee one minute and croons like a balladeer the next, sliding its way into a deep, oscillating vibrato whenever a little extra color is needed. During the title track’s bridge, Mr. Lambert even sounds a bit like Michael Jackson circa “Dangerous,” ad-libbing a few lines over squelching guitars and urban dance beats. This is the sort of bombastic voice that deserves to win singing competitions, coupled with the kind of flashy personality that keeps an audience’s attention long after the competition is over.
“Trespassing” is perpetually over-the-top — even absurd at points, especially during the schmaltzy, operatic ballads that dominate the second half — but it’s also a career-defining album for Mr. Lambert, who sounds elated to finally let his true colors shine. A musical theater veteran who got his start performing with the touring production of “Wicked,” he seemed to be playing a different role on his first album, 2009’s “For Your Entertainment,” whose songs presented Mr. Lambert in a sort of sanitized, family-friendly format. Here, he hoists his freak flag high, often with solid results.
Willie Nelson turned 79 last month, making him older than Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and pretty much every living country star this side of Ray Price and Little Jimmy Dickens. If six decades of heavy touring have left him tired, though, Mr. Nelson shows little sign of fatigue on “Heroes,” his 66th studio album.
Sure, his voice has become a little weathered, with a wild wobble replacing his once-elegant vibrato. Mr. Nelson can still sell a song, though, even if he can’t sing it as suavely as he used to. “Nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard,” he croons during a lovely cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” his cracked vocals illustrating the lyrics better than Chris Martin’s own performance ever did.
There are a lot of covers here, not to mention a lot of guest stars. Even Snoop Dogg puts in an appearance on the novelty tune “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” and son Lukas Nelson sings on a whopping nine songs, at times threatening to steal the spotlight from his dad.
Whenever Mr. Nelson sinks his teeth into a western swing number or a Texas country ballad, though, he may as well be the only one in the room. The Red Headed Stranger may have gone gray a long, long time ago, but he hasn’t lost his touch.
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