You Need to Know: Ben Haenow, X Factor UK’s Breakout Star
On November 13th, a slew of albums dropped: Kylie Minogue, One Direction, and Justin Bieber all released new LPs. One name that went largely unnoticed was Ben Haenow — but he is a brilliant talent, and you need to know about him right now.
Haenow (pronounced “hey now”) is just starting to make waves in the States, but he’s already a household name in the UK, thanks to his stint on the X Factor. The charismatic and attractive former van driver had sung in various bands for half his life before signing up for the show last year. Auditioning with the Rolling Stones classic, “Wild Horses,” Haenow sailed through the early rounds, never finding himself in the bottom two. It was later revealed that he had garnered the most public votes for an impressive seven weeks in a row. And despite a spirited challenge from eventual second-place-finisher, Fleur East, Haenow was crowned the winner.
His debut single, a cover of OneRepublic’s “Something I Need” became an instant Christmas UK #1, temporarily knocking Mark Ronson’s mega-selling “Uptown Funk” from the top spot. Haenow’s career was already off to an impressive start.
But an ominous clock started ticking the instant the confetti stopped raining down on that X Factor stage. Haenow, like all singers thrust into fame via a reality-television victory, has an enormous built in-audience… However, the cyclical nature of the show means that he has about a year before the public moves on to the next rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Consequently, pop music is littered with the dashed dreams of former reality-show winners who never got their careers off the ground. Sure, there have been some astronomical successes. But for every Carrie Underwood and Alexandra Burke who have translated their wins into chart-topping success, there’s a Taylor Hicks and Steve Brookstein whose albums were dead on arrival.
Haenow is signed to Simon Cowell’s Syco label, and given the risk, it’s surprising he was granted the luxury of writing his own material for his debut album — Haenow co-writes just over half the songs on the standard edition of the album. Even more surprising: the album is being released in the US at the same time as in the UK. Of all the X Factor UK winners, Leona Lewis is the only other one to see her debut get a US release; given her subsequent global accomplishments, Cowell clearly has faith in his new young talent.
Naturally, with the stakes so high, Haenow would have been forgiven for going the “safe” route by doing an album full of covers and/or ballads. Instead, he spent most of 2015 in LA, crafting an album that leans more towards pop-rock. There’s only one cover (his coronation song, “Something I Need,” appears, per standard practice for X Factor winners), and only one straight-up, generic ballad. The rest of the songs play up to Haenow’s “aww-shucks” charm and his Gavin DeGraw-esque voice by positioning his sound somewhere between pop star and singer-songwriter. Songs like “Start Again” and “Brother” are rousing, arms-in-the-air anthems reminiscent of OneRepublic; both are album highlights. And “Way Back When” is the best neo-classic soul record this side of a Maroon 5 album. None of the songs are especially innovative, but they sound great.
The album even manages to bookend nearly a decade-and-a-half of Cowell success, with original American Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, appearing on the brilliant lead single, “Second Hand Heart.” Originally conceived as a country ballad, the final product is a rousing pop anthem that sees the two stars trading verses about imperfect love. With its swirling production and faultless vocals, it’s an absolute treat.
Speaking of faultless vocals, Haenow’s voice soars throughout the album; it only ever grates on “All Yours.” Even though the song is a piano, choir-backed, gospel-flavored slow jam, Haenow almost shouts the chorus, making it sound like he’s working through a frustrating bout of constipation.
The only other miscues are, bizarrely, not related to the music: “Slamming Doors” is an early highlight, but the song’s title conjures up a misleading image of angry break-up music. Instead, the song should’ve been called “If This Isn’t Love,” to better reflect the song’s beautiful, lounge-y vibe. Similarly, “Lions” roars with brilliant, stomping hand-claps and excellent backing vocals similar to a Mumford and Sons or Lumineers song. Sadly, there are too many metaphors swimming around in the lyrics (being thrown to the lions, diving under the waves) for the song to feel cohesive. The song would’ve functioned better with only one theme (although this isn’t Haenow’s fault, as “Lions” is one of the few songs he didn’t co-write).
Despite these shortcomings, Haenow has managed to deliver a promising debut. Sadly, the album is already in peril, only reaching #10 in the UK — and even more damning: “Second Hand Heart” limped to #21 in the singles chart. The album is faring even worse in the States, missing the top 200 altogether. However, given Haenow’s good looks and relative anonymity here, he still has a chance to turn this around with the right promotion. And if nothing else, the solid songwriting on his debuts suggests that he’ll at least have a career as a songwriter if his pop career fizzles out. But hopefully Ben Haenow’s album will succeed, and he’ll become a runaway success in the States. And maybe next time he releases an album, he’ll be a big enough name for the public to take notice.