Our recurring column ‘Lest We Forget’ is devoted to revisiting albums that have been unfairly overlooked or marginalized within the broader critical and commercial context of our favorite artists’ discographies. We hope that our recollections shine a newfound light on these underappreciated gems from the past, and as always, we encourage you, our readers, to weigh in with your own perspectives and memories in the comments below.
On December 16, 2006, British vocalist Leona Lewis stood center stage on The X-Factor—one of the leading reality talent shows of the period—as the first woman (and one of color) to take the crown in the third season of the competitive television series. Just several years beforehand, Lewis had abruptly departed The BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology to take an assertive approach to pursuing her desired career path as a professional singer. Enduring many triumphs and setbacks, the opportunity to audition as a contestant for The X-Factor wasn’t one she was going to miss.
Almost immediately after winning, Lewis was thrust into the mainstream music-making machine. As it had been for any of the preceding hopefuls that gained victory through reality television, it was pyrrhic. Overseen by The X-Factor’s progenitor Simon Cowell in the United Kingdom—and decorated industry Svengali Clive Davis stateside—Lewis’ debut set Spirit (2007) was sanctioned by Syco Records and J Records/RCA respectively. Lewis’ clear and powerful vocalizing recalled the height of the “diva boom” of the 1990s in a Noughties setting.
Commercial returns were instant. But, the engineered sentimentality of Lewis’ music did little to no justice in relation to correctly putting across her instrument imaginatively.
A careful study of the songwriting credits for Echo (2009), Lewis’ second album, showed diminutive, but active involvement from the singer for that project. She was chomping at the bit to inject more of herself into her output.
Accordingly, Lewis took on a larger role in the construction of her third long player Glassheart. Upon completion of “The Labyrinth Tour” in support of Echo in July 2010, Lewis began casting nets for writers and producers. It was largely understood for those being courted by Lewis that she would be leading the curation process for all works submitted for recording consideration for Glassheart.
Initially, an anthemic dance-pop number “Collide” served as the first taster from Lewis’ forthcoming project. Outside of the brief intellectual property spat that occurred between Lewis and the late Swedish disc jockey Avicii over the track’s composition, “Collide” did not evince the evolutionary edge Lewis was ultimately seeking. Wisely, “Collide” was pulled back and tagged as a “promotional single” and Lewis kept at the process of reviewing the material being drafted for her. She would also cinch seven co-write credits of her own out of the twelve cuts that comprised the finished form of the LP.
As 2010 gave way to 2011, the collaborative guest list for Glassheart included an admirable cast that notably featured Shahid “Naughty Boy” Khan, Rodney Jerkins, Ina Wroldsen, Emeli Sandé, Craigie Dodds, Ryan Tedder, Peter Svensson (of The Cardigans), Alexander Shuckburgh, Justin Franks and Fraser T. Smith. The experienced Smith made an impression on Lewis, sparking a creative fire within her that led to an additional delay for the record’s reveal; it was now set to be unleashed toward the final half of 2012.
Smith rose as a creative principal and muse for Lewis during the Glassheart sessions, pushing her to tap into an earnest interpretive space as a vocalist that theretofore she had not explored. To showcase her refreshed artistic mindset, Lewis put out Hurt: The EP digitally on December 9, 2011. Audaciously made up of covers from acts such as Nine Inch Nails (“Hurt”), Goo Dolls (“Iris”) and Counting Crows (“Colorblind”), Lewis used the EP as a stopgap and indicator of her specific intention with what was to come with Glassheart.
Unlike Spirit or Echo, Glassheart is distinct within Lewis’ canon for two reasons. First, throughout Glassheart, there is a newly minted emotional context to Lewis’ voice. By allowing herself to step into the darker song scripts and take up their ethos, Lewis’ adjusts to each track providing evocative and believable performances. Whether it is the mournful soulfulness that suffuses the album’s opener “Trouble” or the patient, searching tones of “Fingerprint,” Lewis proves that there is room for both technique and feeling.
Secondly, the music of Glassheart is appropriately scaled to the varying sizes of her vocals. Maintaining her unabashed affection for the melodic craft and swell of classic adult pop and soul (“Fireflies”), Lewis also inventively ropes in contemporary elements with interpolations of light hip-hop/grime rhythms and jagged dubstep breaks (“Come Alive”). On the former tip, Lewis flips the Tears for Fears charter “Head Over Heels” (via sample) on “Favourite Scar” managing to put Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s inimitable sonic elegance to work in service of her own gorgeous soul-pop vibe.
Released on October 12, 2012, Glassheart had a “standard” and “deluxe” edition; the latter bundled another disc that included Lewis’ impressive cover of Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” from Hurt: The EP backed by a compelling Glassheart leftover (“Sugar”), a remix of “Collide” and three stripped-down versions of “Trouble,” “Come Alive” and the title track.
Still, neither the deluxe incentives nor the two singles lifted from Glassheart (“Trouble,” “Lovebird”) attracted the necessary attention needed for it to reach its expected commercial goal. Eventually, while certifying silver in the United Kingdom, its soft sales at home kept Glassheart from receiving an American release. It was certainly a crushing blow with the time and care given to the project.
Lewis’ later efforts—Christmas, With Love (2013) and I Am (2015)—were solid, but neither approached the progressive scope of Glassheart. In the years since its unveiling, the record has gone on to achieve a rightful cult status among discerning pop listeners. While it might have been a bit ahead of the curve at the time of its release, Glassheart brought artistic agency to Leona Lewis when she needed it most.