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Susan Boyle is a classic example of the underdog. And she's still in our hearts – now making her second stab at the seasonal charts in the guise of Syco’s Christmas cracker. Flung onto the monitors of billions of YouTube visitors from her West Lothian council flat via Britain’s Got Talent, Boyle’s second album is a predictably comforting affair comprising seasonal standards, classic covers, touching string arrangements and a generous helping of boy-choirs.
The signature diction – fresh, clean and clear – is certainly heart-warming. But clocking in at just 35 minutes and without a big-belter hit at its disposal, The Gift is not as touching or grabbing as it could be. The climax two-thirds through Do You Hear What I Hear? reminds us just how exceptional a singer Boyle is; but the sentiment elsewhere is too placid, and perhaps too seasonal to achieve staying-power in the charts.
The Gift certainly isn’t lacking in rectitude or tenderness, but does fail to make the most of that catch in Boyle’s voice – the sparkle and the show-stopping confidence that made her ubiquitous. The restrained vocals are haunting, but the joy is stemmed from reassurance and association rather than the magic of her tale. There’s an unexplored middle ground here – it’s a guaranteed hit of an album, sure, but without that feeling of urgency in performance much of Boyle's magic has become diluted.
Even the cover of Lou Reed’s ode to heroin, Perfect Day, is less than wide-eyed. It’s an odd choice on the face of it, but in the setting of songs as classic and overdone as Auld Lang Syne, just another melody on top of a sea of subdued, whimsical string arrangements. And that shy touch is taken too far on Away in a Manger, which opens with the voice of a schoolboy rather than our still-new superstar. Boyle’s skill at flooring crowds with the big notes has been compromised; the waif-like softness should have been used more lightly.
The Gift wins at warming the heart in a time of reflection and recession, ringing subtly – via an impressively less-than-mechanical recipe – in the slushiest part of our brains. Sap sells, and that’s granted, but there’s a missed trick here, a lost chance to put Susan Boyle back on the centre-stage she so deserves.