Former van driver Ben Haenow emerged as the surprise winner of last year’s series of The X Factor after beating favourite Fleur East. The charismatic rock singer has performed in bands since he was a teenager and his life changed when he auditioned for The X Factor and landed a place in Simon Cowell’s category. His debut single, a cover of OneRepublic’s Something I Need, topped the charts last Christmas and his recent single Second Hand Heart featured Kelly Clarkson and peaked at 21 in the UK charts. Now Ben has released his self-titled debut album but can he break the curse of the male X Factor winners?
Firstly let’s ponder the alleged curse of X Factor male winners. Both Shayne Ward and Matt Cardle have had reasonable success since they won the competition but it’s true that they didn’t quite scale the heights of say Leona Lewis or Little Mix. They were at least on par with Alexandra Burke though so we think that ‘curse’ may be slightly exaggerated.
Haenow is a rock singer at heart but that’s been reined in, in favour of a more mainstream pop/rock release designed to sell by the bucktload. Lead single Second Hand Heart treads the rock/folk sound that OneRepublic and Mumford & Sons have popularised and it’s a sound that Haenow adopts for most of the record. He’s worked with the top songwriters and producers including Julian Bunetta (One Direction), J.R. Rotem (Maroon 5), Steve Robson (Olly Murs) and Amy Wadge (Ed Sheeran) to ensure that he has the best possible chance of succeeding. To his credit Haenow has been involved in the songwriting too with co-writing credits on most of the tracks.
Ben Haenow opens with Second Hand Heart before moving on to piano ballad Slamming Doors. Just two songs in a bit of a pattern emerges with Haenow having recorded solid if not standout songs. Rarely over the course of the album does Haenow move away from the predictable and that’s a real disservice to him. As a whole the album is pretty safe and that’s a real shame as his performances on The X Factor made us hopeful that he would do something with variety and full of surprises.
That’s not to say that Ben Haenow is a bad record; it isn’t by any means. It actually recalls the early days of reality singing competitions when the likes of Will Young and Gareth Gates released albums perfectly calculated by A&R rather than trying to pave a unique path for them as artists. There are some gems on this collection with the acoustic-led Lions using Ed Sheeran as a template, Make It Back To Me proving to be one of the most emotive songs on the record allowing Haenow’s voice to shine free from over-production, and the funky One Night that switches his signature sound up a little.
For a debut album Ben Haenow could be solid enough to give the singer some longevity. The under-performance of Second Hand Heart, despite a high-profile X Factor appearance, is slightly worrying but perhaps Haenow can emerge as an album artist rather than singles artist? It hasn’t helped his case that runner-up Fleur East has burst onto the scene at the same time and dare we say she’s get a much bigger marketing push with much more memorable material. We hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for Haenow as he’s a gifted singer that is capable of much more than this record showcases.