A song of many lives: we’re catching it at the end of its first, after a failed release in 1993 and a bounce around the charts. In three years time it’ll be changed for good, the soundtrack to Tony Blair’s first election win. From then on its critical fortunes are linked to its grinning patron’s, and at some point in the early 00s it stops being a naff take on real optimism and becomes a different kind of reflection: brittle, shallow, endlessly on-message.
The problem with it in ’97 was that it was too small for its moment. It was a record for diligent staffers to let their hair down to after a long campaign, it said hardly anything about the giddy hopes and vengeful glee of May 1st, which means it can’t – for me at least – summon them to mind now. It sounds tacky, not poignant or bittersweet.
So can we scrape all that away and put “Things Can Only Get Better” back in its 1994 place? We can try, but it was never much of a record. It’s part of a strain of tune-heavy, hands-high dance-pop which was hitting big at the time – sometimes excellent (Sub Sub’s “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)” for instance), usually at least momentarily seductive. This is as memorable and catchy as any, but pushy with it, which is the risk you run with gospel-tinted music. Gospel does not come easy to the British, who focus on the uplifting handclap qualities and ignore the spiritual elements that elevate the ecstasy and frame more complex or painful emotions. The result are records, like this and some M People songs, that walk a very fine line between inspiration and aerobics. Not to mention that Peter Cunnah’s voice isn’t really up to it – his strained micro-grunts surfacing dark memories of the Goss twins. I bet it all sounds pretty good if you’ve just won an election, but what wouldn’t? By the same token, there are worse songs out there for events to ruin.