Glee Cast: Glee: The Music, Vol 1 | CD review

A US TV series has taken over the charts. Should we be pleased or depressed, asks Alexis Petridis

The list of awards and nominations handed out to US comedy-drama ­series Glee in recent months makes for ­startling reading: it's won just about every gong going except employee of the month at the Hickstead services branch of Burger King. Its greatest ­impact, however, may be on the charts. Weeks after it began in the US, Reuters was claiming it might single-handedly save the music industry, and you could see why: in 2009, its cast had 25 hit ­singles in America, the most anyone has achieved in a year since the Beatles. Not only do viewers buy the soundtrack to hear the cover versions the eponymous school choir perform, they buy the originals too: so it is that not one but two versions of Journey's Don't Stop ­Believin' currently reside in the UK  ­ top 10.

The question of whether they're ­actually buying music or a kind of ­souvenir mug you can listen to hangs over the ­series' soundtrack album. Does it work in its own right, divorced from the visuals and story lines? Not exactly. Like the programme ­itself – which ­reiterates Hollywood's ­apparently unshakable belief that your ­average teenage spod looks exactly like a finely chiselled ­romantic lead, ­except ­wearing a tank-top – Glee's music ­requires a ­certain suspension of ­disbelief. ­Enjoyment is predicated on the ­listener's ability to buy into a fantasy, which seems to have proved a problem for some US critics. They have protested that there's too much autotuning on the vocals, which apparently means it lacks the grimy audio-verité ­authenticity one should ­demand from an album of Broadway musical actors and former boy band members pretending to be teenagers at an Iowa high school singing Liza ­Minnelli and Avril Lavigne songs: ­perhaps they made the easy ­mistake of confusing the Glee soundtrack with Alan Lomax's 1931 field ­recordings of work songs from the ­Louisiana state ­penetentiary. They have also ­complained that leading man ­Matthew Morrison isn't a terribly ­authentic ­rapper, about which they have a point: he certainly doesn't rep for all the broke-ass motherfuckers in the projects in the way you might ­reasonably expect from a ­musical theatre star recently ­spotted playing ­Lieutenant Cable in South ­Pacific. Said critics were later heard complaining that John ­Barrowman's ­version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memory was insufficiently ghetto.

In fairness, not all the album's ­highlights require the listener to ­temporarily imagine that they're ­listening to a high-school choir. ­Reworking Billy Idol's Dancing With ­Myself as a ratpack-style ­showstopper is a ­brilliant idea, the atmosphere of ­musical sophistication undercut by the fact that the song is about – and there's no polite way to put this – ­having a wank. The issue of choirs in pop is a thorny one – rock ­music offers few ­moments more singularly dispiriting than the thunderous arrival of the John Aldis Choir about seven-and-a-half hours into Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother – but when it works, it's a pretty irresistible sound: You Can't Always Get What You Want, Blur's Tender, Donna Summer's State of ­Independence. So it proves here. It's a terminally heavy heart that doesn't find itself lifting at least slightly when the massed voices kick into the chorus of Sweet Caroline or rework the Ray Charles sample from Kanye West's Gold Digger.

Still, there's no doubt that Glee's ­ability to recontextualise songs ­frequently rests on the notion that they're being sung by midwestern teenagers. Queen's Somebody to Love sounds ­entirely different – more desperate and yearning, less arch – ­performed by a ­collection of geeky ­adolescents than it did issued from the lips of ­Freddie ­Mercury, a rampant ­sexual polymath who, to borrow a line from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, would probably have had a frog if it had stopped hopping long enough. Similarly, the version of Heart's Alone loses the original's frenzied mood of 3am drunk-dialling hysteria, and ­becomes a rather touching paean to the perennial teenage problem of finding somewhere private to slake your fell desires.

This is great fun, which isn't ­something you can confidently say about the whole album. In the US, Glee debuted immediately after American Idol, whose shadow looms ­during the longueurs. The version of You Keep Me Hangin' On induces the same ­sinking feeling as Dermot O'Leary telling you it's Motown week on The X Factor: you're stuck with someone not covering the oeuvre of Holland-Dozier-Holland so much as wrestling it to the ground and setting about it with a ­bottle of ­Dettol and a J-cloth: it would be a bland, ­boring cover version whether sung by an actor pretending to be a midwestern teenager, a pensioner from Grimsby, or by ­Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of ­Equatorial Guinea. More often, though, if you're prepared to buy into the ­conceit, Glee: the Soundtrack almost lives up to its title.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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