May 14

AQUA – “Turn Back Time”

Popular40 comments • 6,103 views

#790, 16th May 1998

aquaturn After proving the Aqua formula could work repeatedly, they drop it: “Turn Back Time” is a cryptic, self-hating ballad about choices and dire consequences. In mood it’s closer to Madonna’s “Live To Tell” than any of the band’s own other songs, though it sounds nothing like that. “Turn Back Time” rides a tense, honking Pet Shop Boys sample and is mainly a vehicle for Lena Nystrom’s thickly-accented singing. The boys of Aqua are banished to a strictly backing vocals role at the end of the song. The entertaining Rene gets a day off to growl at Copenhagen passers-by.

Liberated from chirping, Lene has a strong, torchy voice and can sell a phrase – check the resigned and bitter way she sings “Claim your right to science”. More important in this context she can set a mood. In half a verse she’s established a lonely, withdrawn, guilty feeling she might push against in the rest of the song. But the song has other ideas: before its second chorus can end the track ruptures, clanking breakbeats bursting up through its steady rhythm, snips of gasps and cries lurking at the back of the soundfield, and Lene barking out a single line repeatedly. This intrusion – easily the most striking part of a placid track – dies away, and having survived it the singer is longer alone: it’s here the comforting backing vox turn up.

The unexpectedness of “Turn Back Time” – a third Aqua Number One, a ballad at that – means it has a high reputation. I’ve heard people claim it as Aqua’s best. I wouldn’t go that far – it’s a pleasant ballad with one great idea, and there’s a wicked delight in “Barbie Girl” and a more straightforward joy in “Doctor Jones” that it’s a shame to lose even for an odd, off-kilter thing like this. Still, there’s more here than just an impressive demonstration of range: appropriately for a song about regret, something about “Turn Back Time” lingers and nags at the memory. The song’s broken English refuses specifics, which opens up resonant spaces: if you needed depths here, you could find them.



  1. 1
    tm on 13 May 2014 #

    Ha, that sleeve gives no indication of what’s inside!

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 13 May 2014 #

    Love this song. And I liked Sliding Doors at the time, along with all the other films that glamourised being an independent grown-up living in London and getting on the tube all the time and having money and not having to live in sodding Zone 6 and do A-level Maths.

  3. 3
    Mark G on 13 May 2014 #

    It can be tempting to over-praise where what’s produced is “better than what could reasonably be expected”, like if the Teletubbies had actually written and recorded “Common People” um, maybe not.

    Still, though, deserves an 8.

  4. 4
    tm on 13 May 2014 #

    Worth more than 6, I reckon: the staccato sax after the chorus is a nice touch and the rumble of scary voices is, as you note, genuinely disquieting. Only the dated post-trip hop beat really grates.

  5. 5
    Rory on 13 May 2014 #

    I like it well enough, but it isn’t what they do best. 6 sounds fair.

    Only reached number 10 in Australia. Their third big hit there (at number 3) was “Lollipop (Candyman)”.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 13 May 2014 #

    #3, Hmm, seems to have deleted my edit version.

    Basically, I modified it to say “It’s tempting to ” etc. Also, pondered how an error message can be “GURU MEDITATION” like, uh, what?

    Anyway, carry on..

  7. 7
    swanstep on 13 May 2014 #

    Lovely; TBT could be a late Abba album track or something from Lykke Li’s latest (the middle eight’s ‘the bolt reminds me I was there’ esp. reminds me of the latter), or a future Robyn bunny or…. In other words, as well as being a nifty, mellow pop track in its own right, TBT is a welcome presence at the top of the charts because of what it represents: a strain of melancholy Scandanavian pop that has periodically enlivened and refreshed and strengthened the pop world for much of my life. On the one hand, TBT is quite formulaic; on the other hand, I love the formula (I’d probably have long ago given up on pure pop without it). I give it an affectionate:

  8. 8
    Pete on 13 May 2014 #

    The Sliding Doors soundtrack is a wonderful snapshot of its time, starting with the honkingly poor “Have Fun Go Mad” by a chancer named nothing less than Blair, Dodgy’s Good Enough (which never was) and Dido’s “Thank You” way before it became a hit.

  9. 9
    Steve Williams on 13 May 2014 #

    Really fond of this song because it coincides with a period I have such fond memories of (depressingly, sixteen years ago exactly). The week this was number one I was coming to the end of my first year at university in Birmingham, and had absolutely loved it, my flatmates were great fun and I was excited to be living in a big city. In fact I’ve still not really got over graduating, to be honest.

    I seem to recall the spring of 1998 being really warm, and that May Brum was home in consecutive weeks to the Eurovision Song Contest and the G8 summit. The latter weekend also saw BRMB’s Party In The Park, starring a host of pop stars including the previous number one and several more to come over the next few weeks, and I invited my sister up to stay for the weekend to go with us. When my friend Holly and I drove through the city centre on the Friday afternoon to pick her up from New Street station, it was absolutely packed, people were spilling out of every bar, there were film crews everywhere and it felt like Birmingham at that moment was the absolute centre of the world.

    When we got back to my flat, my flatmates had decided to spend the whole afternoon drinking so one of them was totally pissed, so we were all up for fun. Before heading out for the weekend we all watched Top of the Pops and this was number one, so it’s stuck in my mind as the soundtrack of a hugely entertaining weekend, and of the last summer when I could officially get away with doing bugger all before boring real life intervened and I had to get a job.

    Can’t be subjective about this song with all the memories it conjures up, I’m afraid. It gets a 9 (losing a point because it was a bit embarrassing when a pissed Sarah tried to eat stuff in Asda before we’d paid for it).

  10. 10
    Steve Williams on 13 May 2014 #

    #8 Blair “sister of Doon” MacKichan, no less! At that point also enduring the thankless role of bandleader and sidekick on The Jack Docherty Show. And still more famous for being Lynda Bellingham’s son in the Oxo adverts.

  11. 11
    Andrew Farrell on 13 May 2014 #

    This is quite lovely, and I’ve been a fan for a while without at any point realising that it was Aqua! I’d have maybe guessed Ms Imbruglia? As Tom says it’s quite a step away from their previous style.

  12. 12
    Mark G on 13 May 2014 #

    #8 ah, my old pal Blair. Worked with him in Turkey.. His sis is Doon Mackichan , His one big hit (as you noted) was eventually done as a cover by The Tweenies, and I did think that was it for him. But, amazingly, he is a bunny! Sort of…

    #10 curses, xpost and all that..

  13. 13
    mapman132 on 13 May 2014 #

    Got airplay in the US, but apparently didn’t appear on the Hot 100. Had no idea it was in a movie until I saw the video. Probably explains why the video has a different feel from their previous hits even more so than the song itself. 6/10.

  14. 14
    Lazarus on 13 May 2014 #

    The Scandinavians do this sort of thing well don’t they – I’m reminded of ‘Erase/Rewind’ by the Cardigans, as well as some Roxette slowies – and yes of course late Abba. And count me as another who enjoyed ‘Sliding Doors.’ They were never going to hang around for long in UK chart terms, though they were in the Top 10 two years later with ‘Cartoon Heroes’ , and disbanded from 2001-7. This was introduced on the Chart Show with the caption: ‘Aqua in good record shock.’ My recollection is that it got plenty of airplay here, more so than ‘Barbie Girl’ which radio programmers might have thought too divisive. 7, I reckon.

  15. 15
    Chelovek na lune on 13 May 2014 #

    Am quite fond of this. (My final no 1 as an undergraduate – I tuned in to the chart show, which I had otherwise stopped doing quite some years earlier to find out what what would be there.) It pootles along quite pleasingly, Lene sings properly (and reasonably capably), and it is kind of agreeable and moderately regretful pop music, and proof that Aqua could do more (at least on this occasion, if no other) than cartoony pop aimed at kids (even if sometimes, as with BG, it was cleverer and more subversive than that too).

    But (and it is a big but), having just reacquainted myself with the recent All Saints “Under the Bridge” (which I know was not universally adored hereabouts). “Turn Back Time” seems to me to be so insubstantial, watered down (and even, poorly aged) in comparison. I would have gone for a 7, but down to 6 it is.

    Also, in the video, as a native Londoner, the incoherent mixing and matching of shots from Bank and Holborn tube stations annoys me immensely. (If not as much as “Open Road” by Gary Barlow, where he emerges from Charing Cross tube to reappear on what seems to be the Tay Road Bridge, That is some open road).

    Kind of pleasing downtempo pop tho’, still.

  16. 16
    iconoclast on 13 May 2014 #

    Nobody expected Aqua to follow the inconsequential cartoon stylings of their first two singles with that increasingly rare of things, a Proper Song – yet here it is, delivered without any sense of irony and enough humanity that the machine-generated rhythm track doesn’t spoil it as much as usual. It goes all strange in the middle – not entirely successfully hiding a key change – to contrast very effectively with the more conventionally arranged verses and choruses; and the whole thing is a pleasant surprise, quite possibly the best Number One since The Teletubbies^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H BoRhap’s rerelease. A definite EIGHT.

  17. 17
    flahr on 13 May 2014 #

    Was this actually written for the Sliding Doors soundtrack or was it repurposed? I ask because it seems a bit odd that, wanting a ballad for their big film starring Gwyn, the producers should have gone “I know, let’s get AQUA in”.

    The third of Aqua’s monotonically increasing number ones, then, which means by mathematics it must have to get an eight. It’s exactly as good as “The Sun Always Shines On T.V.”.

  18. 18
    weej on 13 May 2014 #

    Nice enough, but fundamentally a polite, insubstantial ballad for a polite, insubstantial romantic comedy. After their last two singles I felt a bit let down by this one, only to find exactly the opposite idea out there in the world of Proper Music Opinions. Can’t blame the song or the band for that but still I have no time for it. A very solid 5.

  19. 19
    cmmmbase on 13 May 2014 #

    #13, There was no commercial single in the US, so it never made the hot 100. It made #49 airplay, though.

  20. 20
    thefatgit on 13 May 2014 #

    This is pretty good. Let’s set aside that Aqua have played the cartoony, primary coloured card twice, this example of the “3rd single must be a slowie” rule is executed with charm and aplomb to these ears. Lene takes the wheel and carries the song without Rene’s interjections.

    I remember “Sliding Doors” being a watchable rom-com (or more accurately, rom-dramedy) with an impressive Gwyneth Paltrow, formerly seen playing Wendy Darling in “Hook”, balancing the twin timelines determined by whether she caught the tube train or not. It’s a post-Thatcherite love story with mousy-Gwyn vs made-over-Gwyn coping/not coping with infidelity, opportunity, misfortune etc. and John Hannah as potential love interest, which is interesting because he’s not Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis is not involved. Instead we have Peter Howitt (better known as Joey Boswell in “Bread”) in his directorial and screenwriting debut, overseen by a possibly fatherly Sydney Pollack. I’ve not seen the film for a while, but I’m pretty sure the film fails the Bechdel test, but then how many rom-coms pass?

    Aqua probably spent a lot of time dissecting the PSB’s learning how to do this kind downtempo pop properly. Or maybe not, as mentioned above, Scandinavians have a long and successful history churning out this style of pop on their own, enough for Neil & Chris to look to ABBA among others for inspiration. So TBT could be part of that family of songs that includes “The Day Before You Came”, “Being Boring”, “Stay On These Roads” and “The Winner Takes It All”. Of course, TBT doesn’t hold a candle to any of these, but let’s not write it off just because TBT keeps good company.

    It’s a shame we say goodbye to Aqua here. Lene goes on to appear in Scandinoir movie, “Deliver Us From Evil”. Rene Dif goes on to appear in a hatful of Danish films and TV. Soren and Claus both stay in the music biz. Their trio of #1 singles are quite acceptable compared to Boyzone’s blandness and Spice Girls’ decline. This one gets a 7.

  21. 21
    tonya on 13 May 2014 #

    ooooh, normally I’m the American thinking “what do these guys mean they never played this in America I know all the words” but I swear I’ve never heard this before. And I’ve probably seen Sliding Doors ten times (that haircut). I remember that Clair de Lune-ish piano on the soundtrack, not this. It’s nice.

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 13 May 2014 #

    this is a pleasant surprise as I don’t remember hearing it before and was anticipating more cartoon pop. I don’t remember hearing it more recently on Radio 2 which is surprising as it sounds like it would fit right in

  23. 23
    Mark M on 13 May 2014 #

    Re17: ‘big movie starring Gwyn’. Sliding Doors cost $9 million, which was a reasonable amount by British standards but fairly cheap by Hollywood ones – a decently budgeted indie back then would cost about $6m, a mid-range studio effort about $40m up (A Perfect Murder, for instance, cost $60m). It was directed – as noted above – by the bloke from Bread. Paltrow was famous for having had a relationship with Brad Pitt, but she wasn’t an established box office draw. But it was a hit – apparently it was released on 1 May but hung around long enough to be marketed as a night out for women avoiding the World Cup.

  24. 24
    hardtogethits on 13 May 2014 #

    We’ve had an odd set of number ones lately. Some I find so bad I can’t comment on them – who would benefit? Some utterly brilliant, 10/10 material – I think destined to remain under-rated, cursed by a combination of short runs at #1, the balkanization of the Top 40 at this time, the seriousness of contemporary esteemed albums and one or two other factors that are too contestable to mention. I’ve held this view for a long time – in 2003 someone asked me (in a very public environment) what my all time favourite no.1 is. I had no faith whatsoever that many people would have heard of this, so I didn’t say it. But it might be. For sure, of all the number ones I enjoy anywhere near this much, it’s the one least marred by over-familiarity, and yet I heard it on the radio a lot at the time.

    I honestly can’t praise it enough, to the point where I think specific description of its many strengths would make me feel wounded by alternative viewpoints made subsequently.

    If I had to delete all but one of the chart toppers I’ve loaded onto my portable mp3 player – and I’d estimate there may be 30 or so – this would be the one I would save.

  25. 25
    James BC on 13 May 2014 #

    Should have had a verse from Rene.

  26. 26
    Kinitawowi on 14 May 2014 #

    On the one hand, it’s clearly the faintest of faint praise to call this “decent for Aqua” – I remember TeleText being astonished that this was actually an Aqua track – when this is actually a really damn good song. That weird horn loop holds it all together, and it’s a perfectly legitimate lyric. I’ve never seen Sliding Doors, but I know the premise (how much of a difference can a single second make to a life? Answer: a lot); I don’t know which way works out, but either way the song’s desire to want that second back, to fix those mistakes, to be able to lock the door before the horse bolts (the only metaphorical explanation I can find for that repeated line “the bolt reminds me I was there” – well, a Scandinavian interpretation of an English metaphor and all that), would certainly fit the story.

    On the other hand, it’s come after the dreck that was Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones, two songs which I deride as a bad joke and the same bad joke retold. In much the same way as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set is them realising that grunge is a dead end (and becoming a much better band for that realisation), I saw this as Aqua realising that the joke had worn thin and it was time to be real musicians for a while. No excessive chirpy giggly crap from Lene, no goofing from Rene, just an actual proper song with more than a joke going for it. Of course, they disappeared and came back with Cartoon Heroes, but… yeah.

    I bloody love this.


    Also, Now! 41 (one of the most popular of the lot), although we’re very much getting ahead of ourselves there.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 14 May 2014 #

    @kinatawowi, 26. Couldn’t the ‘bolt’ just be as in ‘bolt out of the blue’, a Proustian jolt of memory and recognition when there’s, say, a crispness in the Fall air the way it was when you were unfaithful that time…? At any rate, that’s how I’ve understood it. Lykke Li’s current ‘Gunshot’ somewhat similarly depicts a shock of painful memory as ‘the shot goes through my head and back/Gun shot, I can’t take it back’.

  28. 28
    swanstep on 14 May 2014 #

    I remember Sliding Doors as being OK-ish, but as having a poor, teeth-grindingly pat and formulaic ending involving a Monty Python quote. Lots of ’90s rom-coms (Singles and Next Stop Wonderland are the two that come to mind, but there were others) ended with a totemic phrase (established early in the film) whose utterance supposedly signifies the arrival of a perfect match. Has anyone seen the Kieslowski film, Blind Chance (1981), to which both Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run are apparently deeply indebted?

  29. 29
    anto on 14 May 2014 #

    So sweet and dreamy as to seem like the work of a totally different band, but I don’t remember it in ‘Sliding Doors’. I do remember my sister going out and getting that haircut the day after we went to watch that film. I’m also still mystified as to the appeal of John Hannah’s character – the kind of prattling Happy Joe who quotes Monty Python in lieu of any real wit and rates The Beatles but no other pop music – A sort of cross between Colin Hunt and Steve Wright.

  30. 30
    wichitalineman on 14 May 2014 #

    Beyond the darkness of the unexpected middle eight, I don’t find this loveable, mainly down to the first half of each verse sounding so incredibly similar to the Pet Shop Boys’ Heart. Tom, is it really a sample? Bit pots and kettles here, but this lift really spoils my enjoyment of the record. Also – although it’s kinda obvs – lacks the big-bubbles charm of the first two Aqua entries. It’s no Erase/Rewind to my Scando-friendly ears. A low 5.

  31. 31
    Tom on 14 May 2014 #

    I thought the synth-line was a sample – but I admit I didn’t actually go back and check “Heart” to confirm that. And now I write this, I wonder if I was thinking of “I Want To Wake Up” anyway… sloppy of me. I think I got the notion from Wikipedia.

  32. 32

    The LP it’s from came out almost a year before the film, so presumably it’s repurposed. It still seems like a curious connection to have made — maybe someone in the production crew searched a database for relevant-sounding titles and didn’t know to nix Aqua based on their usual MO; so it slipped through, to everyone’s benefit. The film is slight, to say the least, but I think a mix of London-based travelogue and timey-whimey gimmick/high concept, reasonably amiably executed, jumped it from trifle to in-the-moment hit.

  33. 33
    Mark G on 14 May 2014 #

    Well, it’s a lot like how “It must have been love” Roxette got used in “Pretty Woman”

  34. 34
    Cumbrian on 14 May 2014 #

    “Lovely”, “pleasant”, “pleasing” “proper song”, “agreeable”, “real”, “actual proper song”, “sweet”.

    And, frankly, a little bit boring. Good for a change of pace and showing that there are more strings to the bow – and I wouldn’t even necessarily disagree with some of the descriptives above – but not half as engaging as it might have been. A bit like Sliding Doors in fact.

  35. 35
    Alan not logged in on 14 May 2014 #

    The page wikip cites re PSB sample looks less authoritative than FT TBH. it’s just a melody lift surely. And it may be the best thing about awful awful film Sliding Doors.

  36. 36
    Kinitawowi on 15 May 2014 #

    Whosampled.com is my usual go to for picking apart samples, and it’s got nothing on this (and not much more for the PSB Heart; apparently The Ragga Twins used it once, but…). I’m increasingly doubting this one.

    That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few samples in here, but something as prominent as Heart would surely have some form of authoritative log out there by now… surely…

  37. 37
    punctum on 19 May 2014 #

    Their third and final number one in Britain, and not exactly a huge hit elsewhere; the rest of the world didn’t appear to want to accept an Aqua not playing it for laughs, although its popularity here owed much to its inclusion in the alleged romantic comedy Sliding Doors. An exquisite electroballad in the Pet Shop Boys tradition of patient, graceful and immense chord changes with a tortured semi-instrumental break, “Turn Back Time”’s remembrances of chances lost and irretrievable are not without their palpable barbs – “I will always have a cross to wear/But the bolt reminds me I was there” – and while Lene’s vocals still lack a little depth of real hurt, she gorges suitably and sinisterly on the black “hole” of the couplet “Though my pangs of conscience/Will drill a hole in you” and expertly navigates the ghost train bumps and twirls of the echoing-into-hell “if only” internal torture chamber sequence before the latter suddenly stops to let a pause readmit the original sumptuous arrangement. Thereafter Aqua drifted into its constituent components and Lene’s brilliant 2003 album Play With Me – including a take on Xenomania’s “Here We Go” which easily outdoes the Girls Aloud version, even though the backing track is identical – did not even gain a British release. Nonetheless, Annie and Sally Shapiro this way lie.

  38. 38
    ciaran on 20 May 2014 #

    The most surprising Number 1 of the year (Except for a returning legend in the latter half of the year maybe)

    Totally unexpected. We can do serious as well as silly.Enjoyed this a lot 16 years ago but would still prefer Barbie Girl out of all 3 now. TBT is not far off the sound of a lush late 80s ballad.Reminded me of The Captain of Her Heart By Double oddly.This new direction of course wouldn’t last and then it was back to the zany by the end of the year. Still would get 7 from me.

  39. 39
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Aug 2014 #

    What Aqua did next…. well, this was certainly an interesting departure for Soren!


  40. 40
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Rather lovely in my opinion, I’m going with a generous 8/10 here.

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