27
Oct 09

RACHEL STEVENS – “Nothing Good About This Goodbye”

FT7 comments • 883 views

During the 00s pop boom there was much talk of “blankness” as a vocal quality – the kind of competent, unaffected but largely inexpressive singing women like Rachel Stevens do on their records. This was making a virtue of necessity to some extent – Stevens, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and Girls Aloud en masse simply didn’t have barnstorming voices. But also I guess a subset of pop fans don’t really like singing all that much, they don’t want it to get in the way of the hooks or the ‘production ideas’, and certainly Rachel Stevens’ voice never did.

There’s one emotional area where the blank style really works as singing and that’s the kind of calm, unreadable, half-out-of-love territory Rachel’s in here. (You also hear it on Girls Aloud tracks like “Call The Shots”, also written by Brian Higgins of course). What makes “Nothing Good” work are two things – the lushness of the electropop arrangement, which is welcoming in a way Stevens’ detached vocal can’t be; and the fit of her placid vocals to the song’s confusing sentiments – this parting is final, or is it, yes it is, but she’ll miss him, sort of, a bit. With a more expressive voice there’s a danger that you could mistake the expression for an intentional ambiguity – that there’s a chance the singer actually is sad about this break-up. Or happy about it. The blankness, though, puts the song somewhere more precise: the sadness, like the relationship, is already history, her thoughts are off somewhere else and what looks like dithering or second thoughts is simply a sort of distracted attempt to be kind.

Comments

  1. 1
    SarahDitum on 27 Oct 2009 #

    I adore this song – although I’ve always heard the deadpan vocal as the containment of desperate sadness, a kind of calm after some kind of horrific emotional storm. That’s why the eruption of neediness in “tell me will you miss me/When I’m in your history” always makes me feel a bit tearful, because I imagine that all along, what she really wants to know is whether the ex hurts too. But there’s never any way back to the relationship in the song.

  2. 2
    Tom on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Just a quick reminder that the other half of this list is going on here:
    http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/tomewing00s

  3. 3
    Lex on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Listening back, I think Stevens’ vocal limitations are a red herring – her album’s success was less to do with what she brought to the table than with the quality of the songcraft – the lyrical ideas and strong narratives allied with really good, appropriate melodies. And yeah, if she helps the songs in any way, it’s due to what Tom said – kind of the opposite of getting in their way, she enunciates the words and delivers the tunes precisely, adds clarity to them. So when you hear a line like “If you are the one, this regret will last forever,” it’s strong enough that its emotion sticks with you. But it goes without saying that for a voice like Stevens’ to be viable, you need lyrics and melodies that can stand on their own, and those don’t exactly come along every day. One of the more bemusing developments of 2009 has been how a few British acts have gained a lot more commercial success than Stevens ever did based on…replicating her aesthetic, right down to the nothing vocals, but without ANY of the lyrical/melodic ideas or hooks. Looking at you here, the Saturdays and Cheryl Cole. And both of those are evidence that Stevensesque voices minus strong material = black hole of pointlessness.

  4. 4
    koganbot on 27 Oct 2009 #

    Stevens’ singing style is surely a choice. Maybe she’s not a powerhouse, but her voice seems viable, so she could skip lightly or whimper or maybe even wail if she wanted to, or if her producers wanted her to. Maybe not to pierce the sky, but to give variety. Whereas Cole and all but one of the Saturdays are stiff and weak. The Saturdays’ “Forever Is Over” is a terrific song with plenty of expressive moments, stylistically much different from “Nothing Good About This Goodbye”; their one good singer is half up to the wail of the chorus but any decent freestyle girl could have done at least as well. The arrangement carries the chorus, but the quieter verses are where they really sound dead, where the jabs and the growls are beyond them. Whereas Stevens’ tracks are much more reliant on her voice, steadily, unvaryingly, mildly warm. Maybe she’s tried wails and stuff and they go wrong for her. Just as some writers have never done well with adjectives or description.

  5. 5
    koganbot on 27 Oct 2009 #

    (That said, “Forever Is Over” has totally ear-wormed me; would have made my top twenty if the singing had come through.)

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 27 Oct 2009 #

    I’ve not really listened to the album (or its tracks separately) for over 3 years now but when I recently applied my highly scientific ‘mark each song out of 10, total score as percentage = how good it is’ measures it scored surprisingly high. The track order is still the worst ever tho imo (but then we had the leak for ages and that was listed differently).

  7. 7
    daavid on 28 Oct 2009 #

    Sadly, I could never get into this song. In fact I hated it the first time I heard it. But in my case I don’t think it had much to do with Rachel; it was the little changes they made to the Alexis Strum version (which I absolutely love) what ruined it for me. And even though I agree with Tom about why Rachel’s voice works with this kind of material, I disagree specifically in this instance, because Alexis’s voice, which is a lot more expressive, works even better IMO.

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