Review Summary: A solid, if unfocused effort from Mrs. Cashley.
Let's just briefly re-wind to my review of the year 2008, where I listed Girls Aloud's terrible Out of Control
as the worst album of the year.
"It's their Forever
, their "Tubthumping", their Neither Fish Nor Flesh
, their "Earth Song", their Sgt Peppers OST
. Expect solo careers soon."
So here we are, not even 11 months later, and the most obvious candidate for a solo career has stepped out from the band into the spotlight. Hate to say I told you so.
In fairness to Ms. Cole, her timing could barely be more perfect. The goodwill generated by the first three Girls Aloud albums still remains, even after the band entered a seemingly endless slide toward mediocrity - yet that slide means that people won't hate Cheryl for breaking the band up. Almost as crucially, Ashley Cole's recent performances in an England shirt have started to turn the tide of opinion against him - Cheryl is no longer tainted by her association with a man who is now the ex-most hated man in football (thanks, Marlon King!). And that's before we consider the way she's positioned herself as the voice of the people during her stint as an X-Factor judge. The upshot of all of this is that, despite the serious lack of quality on the last two Girls Aloud albums, even the hardened haters find themselves rooting for her to do well.
Good job that all our prayers are answered, then. Plenty has already been made of the similarities between "Fight for This Love" and "Lil' Star", a collaboration between Kelis and Cee-lo Green dating back to 2007, and while it's definitely a point worth making, it doesn't really matter - "Fight for This Love" isn't just the best single of the year, it's probably the most mind-bendingly brilliant pop song since Justin Timberlake's "My Love". It shares plenty with "My Love", actually - the waves of synths and and simple, direct pleading generating a remarkably similar emotional effect. Yet it's a far smarter song than, perhaps, anybody involves realizes.
Pop music, particularly in the UK, has been defined in the past few years by shameless revivalism, but save for a few acts making '60s pop (the Noisettes and Duffy particularly), it's all been aimed squarely at an audience that entered their teens during the '80s. Those people are now at least
39 years old - is this really pop's target audience? People in my age range - I'm 23, so let's say 19 to 27 - simply don't have fond childhood memories of The Human League or Eurthymics. But Jodeci? SWV? En Vogue? Now we're talking. And that's where "Fight for This Love" aims itself squarely. It's not just a matter of sonics, either - the ironic co-opting of the '80s has tended to lend itself to lyrical abstraction ('music in the poison/dancing is my remedy' is about as direct as it gets), but this is direct. There's no coyness about this song - it's as direct as pop music has been all year.
If the rest of 3 Words
had done the same, we'd be looking at a seriously great album. It sort of does, to be fair, but not often enough, and in a completely unexpected way - the album's other highlight, the opening title track, sounds like Everything but the Girl in their mid-'90s downtempo house period. It's a pretty startling opening, both because the opening guitar lines sound like the quiet parts of a Maps & Atlases track, and because it's the darkest and best thing will.i.am has ever been involved in. There are a few other tracks - "Make You Cry", "Stand Up" - that draw the mind back to sun-kissed dance tracks like Modjo's "Lady (Hear Me Tonight)". It's not quite what you expect, but hey, it's still '90s nostalgia, right?
To be fair to the songwriters behind this record, "Make You Cry" is actually the worst thing here - when the sound abandon the '90s and either tries to sound like the '80s ("Heaven" is pure Stock, Aitken, and Waterman), or to be a bit more modern, the quality remains solid. But therein lies the one major flaw of 3 Words
- it's simply not consistent enough in terms of sound. It's here where you really start comparing it to Girls Aloud at their peak, and particularly to their relationship with Xenomania. There's a distinct, established Girls Aloud sound that came from years working with just one group of songwriters, and Cheryl hasn't quite managed to grasp that here. It's easy to see why
she's trying so hard not to sound like Girls Aloud, but it's just a little too unfocused to be truly remarkable.
But still, Cole should be applauded for making a pop album that remains true to her status as one of Britain's most famous and popular women, but takes a few risks along the way. It's an entertaining enough listen for now, but it'll be interesting to see whether "Fight for this Love" is a one-off fluke, or a sign of the kind of songs she'll be involved in in the future.