Review Summary: We knew it would be interesting. We didn't know it would be this good.
Forgive me the smugness, but after certain Girls Aloud forums reacted to this review by trying to drag Sputnik into a flame war, I think I'm entitled. Here's the last paragraph of the review I wrote almost three years ago for Out of Control
, Girls Aloud's utterly terrible fifth album.
A career killer. It's their Forever, their "Tubthumping", their Neither Fish Nor Flesh, their "Earth Song", their Sgt Peppers OST. Expect solo careers soon.
Hate to say I told you so....
From the group's (apparently temporary) implosion comes Nicola Roberts' Cindarella's Eyes
, the fourth solo album by a member of Girls Aloud, following Nadine Coyle's already-forgotten Insatiable
and Cheryl Cole's two efforts. At first glance, it may seem bizzare that Roberts is the third member to release an album, beating both Kimberley Walsh and Sarah Harding to the punch - she is, after all, the girl we know least about, the one that seemed happiest to stay out of the limelight, the one that would rarely fight for her chance to speak when all five appeared together on talk shows. And yet, those are exactly the same reasons why the prospect of Roberts going solo is infinitely more fascinating than any other members (sans perhaps Cole at the height of her marriage troubles).
What Nicola Roberts has that the party-loving Harding and the outgoing, stage-trained Walsh don't is a sense of mystery. We simply don't know very much about her life, her opinions, or her personality beyond seeing her as 'the shy one'. And yet, she probably has the most interesting stories to tell. Being Nicola Roberts can't possibly have been easy - some of the attacks on her by the British media, perhaps in retaliation to her shyness and the fact that they couldn't get any stories out of her, has been vicious. More than one national newspaper has called her 'the ugly one', or some variation on that phrase, and fashion magazines were hardly much kinder in the band's early days - I distinctly remember an article introducing the band as 'the four sexiest women in British music (and the ginger one)'. How can that not hurt you" For years Roberts was treated as a spare wheel, as if she was only part of the band because they needed a fifth person and it didn't matter who it was. After years of suffering through being ignored, attacked, belittled, and patronized, she must have had a lot of pent-up emotions to let out on this album.
It sounds like it, too. Cinderella's Eyes
is unmistakably a pop album, but it's a leftfield, confessional, deeply personal one that frequently feels more like the work of a singer-songwriter than a pop star. Although it's not in the same ball-park soundwise, it echoes both the very best and very worst of Robbie Williams in the effect it has - even within one listen, you feel like you've got to know her through her songs.
You might not have been expecting that after hearing the debut single "Beat of My Drum", a Diplo-produced barnstormer that sounds a little like a child got loose in a recording studio and decided to press every button and see what happens. It sounds like an absolute mess on first listen, but it just grows and grows until you realize that it's probably the best pop song of the year - and you realize how defiant it is, too. 'See how strong you've made me now.....don't it make your heart go wild, how I've turned this whole thing around"' It's an opening statement that slots nicely onto an album that deals with her personal destruction and bold rebirth at the hands of the haters (and for once, I think that word is appropriate here).
The album is full of soul-searching. "Say It Out Loud" opens by asking 'how many tears can you count on your fingers" How many diets can you do to get thinner"' and arguably gets darker from there, hinting vaguely at an abusive relationship. "Sticks + Stones" similarly starts with 'couldn't you tell lies to me" Couldn't you say I'm pretty"' before opening up about being bullied at school and again hinting at something much darker, this time mental instability. "i" skips the hints altogether and opens with the line 'I'm scared of dying', before going on a messy, freeform rant about all her fears that's reminiscent of Bilal's "Sometimes", and contains the line 'I don't like the people that leave comments on the internet/They preach they're perfect while they're ***ing you with intellect' - honestly Nicola, you're giving people like me way too much credit. This is what Cindarella's Eyes
is all about - it's about being battered, sneered at, depressing yourself over it, and then lashing back out at the people that hurt you, and importantly, it's unafraid to be lyrically sloppy as long as that emotion comes across; something that makes the whole thing that much more touching and believeable.
And the songs themselves are strong, too, strong enough to work without their message. "Lucky Day" is a house-inflected breezy pop track Kylie Minogue would have been happy to call her own, "i" has a percussion track and an exotic plucked arpeggio that suggests, incredibly, that Tom Waits was a big influence, "Gladiator" is a stadium-sized stomper with a naggingly familiar chorus, and "Take a Bite" is a whirlpool of noisy retro synths and tinny, insistent guitars that's very difficult to place; but "Sticks + Stones" is the most impressive at all. It would have been very easy and very tempting to turn this into a soaring radio-friendly ballad, a la Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" (or A1's "Caught in the Middle", which has a very similar chorus melody), but instead it's left as bare as possible, with the atmosphere piled on thick, and it's all the better for it. Roberts deserves huge credit for this too - she has a writer's credit on every song on the album, and her imagination when it comes to picking an unexpected collaborator (Metronomy and Dragonette both feature) and a cover ("Everybody's Got to Learn Sometimes") suggests that she could have a long, successful solo career in front of her if she wants it.
Girls Aloud have a couple of seriously good albums under their belts already, but Cinderella's Eyes
beats them all. Concise, consistent, both melodic enough to be instant and deep enough to be well worth repeated listens, packed to the brim with charisa and personality without ever being brash - her occasional attempts at rapping are a little dodgy, but aside from that, I honestly cannot find a single fault. That one in Girls Aloud you probably never really noticed before has just made the pop album of the year.