Where We Are, the Irish crooners' ninth album, has been billed by the group as their darkest and edgiest to date. With songwriting credits from Ryan 'Bleeding Love' Tedder and Wayne 'Sweet Dreams' Wilkins, and a cover of Daughtry's 'What About Now', they even seem to be eyeing up the American market. Thankfully, this means no more corny Big Band reworkings - another peculiar passion of Cowell's! However, the group's mechanical approach to music-making means that even the moderately impressive, Tedder-penned 'Shadows' (initially pencilled in for Leona Lewis's Echo LP) is rendered near-unlistenable thanks to the lads' cheesy, yearning vocals and all-too-predictable schmaltzy crescendo.
Reading the sleeve notes of the album, it's difficult to be too sneering about the four-piece. With Kian and Nicky dedicating the track to their late fathers and Mark and Shane writing passionately about how grateful they are still to be in the music biz after 11 years, they come across as well-meaning and hardworking ordinary blokes. But ordinary blokes, sadly, do not make great popstars. Ultimately, it's the dedications to their management team of Cowell and Louis Walsh which really hint at what this album is about. Each track features a calculated, almost robotic four-minute build-up to that key-change. On the finale for 'Leaving', it's almost possible to hear the tinny din of cash registers ringing as they switch between soppy emotional vocal solos and the drum-kicks, swathes of strings and choral backing.
There's no doubting that Westlife's musical formula works: their run of No.1s and album sales prove that. However, when the formula is so blatantly cynical and executed with such little charm, it makes them very hard to love. On the dreary monotony of 'Talk Me Down' or the hollering extravaganza of 'Another World', the boys certainly hit all the right notes, but there isn't a drop of passion, genuine emotion or soul to be found anywhere. By the time you've made it to 'I'll See You Again', which again builds from tinkled ivories and strings into a swirling, pompous bluster, you'll be more likely to reach for the sick bag than the repeat button. Knocking Westlife is often considered pointless and snooty, but while they continue to release dross like this, there isn't really much choice.