You’re in the car with the radio on and no expectations, and suddenly you hear it: a song that stops everything around it, breaking through the playlist and announcing itself as a hit. More than a hit, a classic, a song you’ll be hearing for the rest of your life. And the feeling when it happens is a kind of classic itself, one of the iconic freeze-frame moments of loving music. As a self-conscious pop fan it’s something I knew was meant to happen, and every time I was listening to the radio a part of me was willing it to.
So when it did happen – when, for instance, I was in my girlfriend’s car at the end of 1997 and I heard a song start with the chords from “Amazing Grace” and a hesitant woman tiptoeing across them, talking out of the radio, asking for help turning fragments back into a life that might make some kind of sense – how much could I believe my reaction? I’d spent the back half of the year getting my own head together, and the glue I’d used was 60s pop and soul. I’d listened – a lot – to Motown, Philly, Spector, girl groups. I was ready for “Never Ever”. I needed it. Right then, I loved it.
But could I trust it? I grew tired of “Never Ever” before long. And listening to it now, the Shangri-La’s style opening monologue – so stark and startling on the radio – is horribly uncomfortable: the singer sounds abject as she begs her ex, not even for reconciliation or explanation, but just grounds to blame herself. It’s not just the styles of the 60s in play here, but their emotionally abusive attitudes too: women choking back romance comic tears, accepting that deep down it’s all their fault. “Not only will your answer keep me sane, but I’ll know never to make the same mistake again”.
It’s particularly hard to deal with given the context All Saints emerged in. The Shaznay Lewis/Mel Blatt team had been scrapping around on pop’s fringes well before the Spice Girls hit, but the renewed interest in All Saints in 1996 was born from the record industry’s sudden need to find new groups to tap the girl band market. With hindsight one of the most remarkable things about the Spice Girls is how clear a run they had, free of real competition – so that by the time alternatives did emerge the problems and strains in the Spice model were really starting to show. All Saints’ positioning as a more sophisticated option – more style mag than tabloid friendly, at least at this point – was clever and natural. But the Spice Girls hadn’t always been overworked sloganistas – if Girl Power meant anything, on the evidence of those early singles, it was about attacking situations (particularly relationships) by assuming a position of autonomy and strength. For the cool alternative to be something as apparently supine as “Never Ever” is troubling.
But while the intro of “Never Ever” may have been the cut-through moment, a dog-whistle for pop classicists like 97-era me, there’s thankfully more in the song than that. If I treat the intro as something for the rest of the song to react against, not build on, I like the song a lot more. “Never Ever” opens at its lowest point and across its five minutes at least begins to build on that and recover some kind of poise, shifting blame to the ex not on the singer: “I’m not crazy, I’m sure I ain’t done nothing wrong”.
Those lines are also when the singers begin to get loose from the straitjacket of “Never Ever”’s metronomic vocal rhythm – which finally shatters on the closing seconds, as the song shifts style entirely: a breakbeat and R&B vamping jumping “Never Ever” forward in time. And finally redeeming the song: Shaznay Lewis takes some of the most desperate, feeble pleas from the intro – “You can write it in a letter, babe” – and repeats them as a sneer. The soul-searching ends, the singer moves on, and “Never Ever” starts as a grovel but ends as a kiss-off.
Is this reading of the song useful? I’d like to think so. It suggests that “Never Ever” is a very clever record, one that draws on the past but – by using genre-play as emotional development – engages critically with it too. That’s something too few Britpop-era records managed. But for me it also recovers a little of the pleasure I felt hearing this song for the first time, stepping coolly out of the context of the radio and hoodwinking me completely.