Posts from 2nd December 1999

2
Dec 99

14. THIEVES – “Unworthy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

David McAlmont can’t sleep. He glides through the house, imaginary conversations playing in his head, a vision of misery in a purple suit. Outside it’s late enough for him not to want to know the time. And as he walks he sings. The song is poised but passionate, regretful and vengeful too, nostrils flared and on the brink of tears – “this self-indulgence could kill a boy” he sings, anger flashing in his voice, “it’s no good, I want you”.

In a way, it did kill him, because anybody who’s heard “Unworthy” is going to judge every other record David McAlmont makes against it, and find them all wanting. McAlmont was the singing half of Thieves, Saul Freeman (later to make fractured, delicate and forgettable drum and bass with Mandalay) handled the music. They made two singles and then fissured before an album could come out. You can find reference points for “Unworthy” without too much trouble – it’s the Cocteau Twins fronted by a torch singer, it’s soul baroque, it’s Butterfly Child’s Joe Cassidy forced to write a Broadway showstopper – but mostly you don’t need them, and you don’t want them. “Unworthy” smoulders away all precedent, is all melodrama and flounce but is at the same time desperately, hopelessly sexy. McAlmont may start reasonable, tender almost, but by the time he gets to the chorus he’s burning“Of all the things to say to me / Don’t tell me I should try and get some sleep!” – and he sings it like a slap.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the chorus is sold-gold unforgettable, that the production is rich and dreamy, that if Macy bleedin’ Gray were to turn her throat to it “Unworthy” would no doubt be number one forever. But with no disrespect to Freeman, this is McAlmont’s show. McAlmont was made for stardom but it somehow eluded him: maybe the times weren’t right for him, maybe his mayfly attention span told against him. And maybe he peaked too soon: “Unworthy” was marketed – barely – as an indie single, and of course vanished, neither boundary-pushing or traditional enough to find much of an audience. The greatest piece of pop theatre of the 90s, it deserved better.