All through the pre-Spice 90s, if you wanted a girl group, it was R&B you looked to, and the reason you looked there was En Vogue. Like the Spice Girls, they were immediately successful and widely copied. They mixed high-gloss beats with rich, harmony-driven soul and used it to deliver short, potent empowerment slogans. They were exhilarating, they seemed exactly right for their times, and their imitators and successors ultimately led to one of pop’s grandest and most inventive eras. And, like any great American band, they received the dubious compliment of a British knock-off: Eternal.
To be “the British [x]” is, by definition, to follow a hard act – and imitation is often the limit of such groups’ ambition. Eternal bounced mildly around the Top 5 for a few years, making records I remember a great deal less well or fondly than “My Lovin’” or “Free Your Mind”. When Louise Nurding left the group to strike out solo, she did exactly the same. So “I Wanna Be The Only One” at Number One felt like a reward for patient service, in line with the BRIT Awards Nominations Eternal kept racking up.
But for once the public get a group right: this is Eternal’s most likeable moment, with collaboration bringing out the best in them. I can’t bluff and pretend I know anything about the history of gospel in the 80s and 90s, but clearly the Winans family are a major force in it, and BeBe Winans came to this record with a dozen years’ experience duetting with his sister – mixing it up with female voices is his speciality, and his interplay with the group here is terrific.
“I Wanna Be The Only One” is purring along before he gets there – the first verse setting up the shape of the song, with a solo voice cradled by those soft “yeah yeah yeah yeah” backing pulses. But Winans wakes everyone up, sidling into the song like a televangelist – “Now you deserve a mansion / You can have the best in life” – and as soon as he arrives Eternal relax and start to enjoy themselves. Winans’ presence makes the song a nonsense as a narrative – who’s meant to be soothing who anymore? Where’s this pain that’s being erased? (BeBe Winans certainly doesn’t have an ounce of it). But that’s fine – his swaggering entrance is just a signal to appreciate the song as pure collaboration, to enjoy the heaped key changes, the vamps, the ecstatic group pile-on at the end.
The main downer is the backing, which sounds stiff and tinny – if Eternal were put together along a 1990 R&B girl group model, the beat still sounds stuck back there. As for the horns, it was a genuine surprise to find they’re credited to human beings. The backing gives the record a cheap gloss, an air of megachurch tackiness. Luckily it gets overwhelmed, lost in the tumble of voices at the end, all those overlapping “the only one – the only one” shouts. This sort of secular gospel climax has a bit of the motivational speaker about it, Winans clapping and coaxing the girls into being the best Eternal they can be. Subtle it isn’t, but it’s the most untroubled and joyful Number One of 1997 so far.