When R&B boy band Blue's chart-dominating four-year career came to an end at the beginning of 2005, few would have predicted that laid-back Mancunian Simon Webbe, arguably the third most utilized vocalist behind frontman Lee Ryan and group pinup Duncan James, would become the solo success story of the band. But while Ryan struggled to pull off his Robbie Williams-esque guitar pop transformation and James' career fizzled out before it really began, Webbe was selling out arenas and crossing over to a much older audience than Blue's predominantly teen fan base, thanks to his polished co-penned debut album, Sanctuary. Eschewing the slick Americanized urban vibes most people were anticipating, its 12 tracks instead focus on a much mellower acoustic sound, which, when combined with Webbe's smooth vocal tones, recalls the sun-drenched soul of '90s duo Lighthouse Family rather than the glossy-produced R&B pop of Usher. Lead single and opening track "Lay Your Hands" bridges the gap between his boy band days and solo career perfectly, its scratched vinyl intro, sweeping strings, and helium-voiced sample cleverly combining the hip-hop-fused pop of Blue with a subtle orchestral production indicating a maturity far beyond that of his bandmates. The "Lean on Me"-esque follow-up "No Worries" raises the bar even higher, an effortless attempt at gospel-soul featuring a glorious female vocal hook that is as empowering as it is uplifting. Elsewhere, the title track echoes the expertly crafted pop/rock of Seal's early-'90s material, the banjo/harmonica-led "Time of Your Life" and the twanging guitars of "Unjustified" see Webbe make a surprising but accomplished stab at country-funk, and the stripped-down "Free" is a gorgeous summery ballad that thankfully avoids the vocal histrionics plaguing many of Blue's slower numbers. Only the skittering old-skool beats of "Only Love" and the dancehall-inflected closing track, "Star," offer any concessions to a more contemporary urban sound. The Gallic-infused "After All This Time" veers a little too close toward bland MOR territory, while "A Little High" is a clunky attempt at neo-soul, but overall, taking the softer, chilled-out approach has paid dividends for Webbe, and Sanctuary is the most confident and melodic debut album from a U.K. boy band member since Robbie Williams' Life Thru a Lens.
AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien