Former painter and decorator Matt Cardle finished his triumphant run on the 2010 series of The X-Factor as not only the most talented of the show's five male winners, but also one of the more unassuming and likeable. However, in the subsequent ten months, he appears to have gone out of his way to destroy any goodwill his impressive performances generated, constantly berating the vehicle which launched him, questioning the credibility of his fellow contestants, and smacking everyone over the head with the claims that he's a "real" musician. Rather unwisely setting himself up for a big fall, his debut album, Letters, faces a mountainous task if it's to live up to his relentlessly vocal artistic intentions. It doesn't start out particularly promising. Opener "Starlight" is exactly the kind of faux-emotive, Coldplay-aping, polished pop/rock you'd expect from a talent show winner who seems obsessed with the notion of integrity, while lead single, "Run for Your Life," is perhaps the dreariest song to emerge from the X Factor stable, its hackneyed, Snow Patrol-inspired chorus showing that not everything its writer Gary Barlow touches turns to gold. Elsewhere, "When We Collide," his renamed cover of Biffy Clyro's "Many of Horror," which comes with an added, obligatory key change; the formulaic "winner's song"-style balladry of "Amazing," and the melodramatic, Hurts-esque "Reflections" are equally unlikely to win over the NME audience he so desperately desires. But there are more encouraging signs which suggest he might yet avoid the here-today-gone-tomorrow career path of Leon Jackson and Steve Brookstein. Ironically, they arrive on the tracks where he takes himself less seriously, such as the Killers-inspired "Stars and Lovers," a rousing slice of '80s new wave which shows he isn't averse to the odd synth now and then, and "Pull Me Under," the best of three songs co-written with Starsailor's James Walsh, which comes complete with an unexpected falsetto funk breakdown, while the impassioned, James Morrison-ish blues of "All for Nothing" is one of the few tracks which manages to recapture some of the soulfulness he displayed, week in week out, just a year previously. But by sticking up the proverbial finger to the platform which made Letters possible, Cardle needed to come back with something much more consistent, stronger, and ultimately more daring than a pleasantly arranged but disappointingly clichéd affair which is just too over-earnest to have the impact he craves.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien