Nov 14

WESTLIFE – “If I Let You Go”

Popular29 comments • 4,072 views

#832, 21st August 1999

westlife if “If I Let You Go” and “When You Say Nothing At All”, back-to-back number ones from the Louis Walsh stable, each have a job to do. Westlife’s song needs to cement the success of “Swear It Again”, Ronan’s has to establish him as a credible solo star, and make a case for what kind of solo act he’s going to be.

And “When You Say Nothing At All” absolutely does establish what kind of solo act Ronan is going to be. A very boring solo act. It’s the simple blueprint Boyzone used on “You Needed Me” – take a big-hearted country ballad and let Keating loose on it. Not that Ronan is precisely a ‘loose’ kind of a singer. His reading of “When You Say Nothing At All” is tediously measured, evoking not a love so strong it needs no words but a more complacent, contented silence: a couple secure in one another’s inertia.

I’m not claiming this as a controversial statement, but I think Ronan Keating is a dreadful singer. He has one dominant tone – the mildly discomfited sincerity he uses here. And on the evidence of the seven number ones he’s plagued me with, he seems basically incapable of feeling his way into a lyric and delivering any kind of surprising, empathic or thoughtful reading. I assume he’s improved, since he’s sustained a long stage career, but he’s one of the most laboured, limited pop stars I’ve encountered on this blog.

A listen to either of the other hit versions of “When You Say Nothing At All” shows it. This isn’t particularly my kind of song, but it’s a song with flexibility and potency. The first version, a rich Nashville ballad arrangement by the teak-voiced Keith Whitley, feels like a celebration of mutual strength in a relationship. Whitley sings the words to be permanent, like he’s etching them into something. The second, a starker, subtler arrangement designed to show off Allison Krauss’ voice, catches some of the potential wonder and discovery in the song. Krauss is a clearer, more beautiful singer but approaches the words with deliberate discretion, as if we’re present at the moment she realises how much their subject loves her.

Ronan, meanwhile, bleats his way through the song and shoves a bit of pipework on the end. Feeble.

And a contrast to “If I Let You Go”, which gives the impression of being thought-through in a way this take on “When You Say Nothing At All” isn’t. On “Swear It Again”, I stressed quite how much Westlife weren’t a typical boyband – they were aiming for something a lot broader (and more stable, in terms of audience passion). Naturally, to spite my idea, the second single is the most boyband-ish thing they ever recorded: it could easily be the Backstreet Boys.

It could very easily be them, in fact, since the songwriting and production on “If I Let You Go” are by Cheiron Productions, last seen on “I Want It That Way” and before that ushering in the next decade with Britney. Cheiron’s (fairly extensive) work with Westlife is mostly ignored when people talk about their impact on 90s and 00s pop – it doesn’t quite fit whatever frames (innovation, pure pop sensibility) you want to impose on the Cheiron story. Also, to be fair, there’s a reason why Per Magnusson – the co-writer here – isn’t as celebrated as Max Martin. “If I Let You Go” is a workmanlike, catchy pop ballad, but very far off a masterpiece. But that level of competence is more than Boyzone ever managed, so calling in the Swedes is paying off immediately.

“If I Let You Go” has a few naff touches – a nasty, studs-up key change for one – but some nice ones too: the fake mellotron noises at the top of the second verse, or the fey Charles And Eddie style “oh yeah” interruptions. The lyric, much like “Swear It Again”, finds Westlife at a moment of crisis – are they going to split up with their lady? No! For that would be “taking the easy way out”, and, however tempting, that is something an Irish boyband would never do.

This problem-resolution structure is as corny as the one in “Swear It Again”, but it works as a means of creating more tension than Boyzone ever did. And it lets Westlife and Cheiron do a nice bit of business on the “Once again, I’m thinking about taking the easy way out” line – playing it first as a genuine worry, and then with a smirk and far lighter backing, to show the decision’s been taken and letting “If I Let You Go” earn its more bombastic final choruses.

It’s the song’s best move – nothing special perhaps, outside the overall context of a bland track. But it shows that, at this early stage, there’s an effort and care going into Westlife’s work that Boyzone and a lot of UK pop rarely gave much sign of aspiring to. Both the conclusions here – Ronan as utterly unadventurous, Westlife as a sparkier, fresher Irish Model – are going to come under imminent pressure. For now though, Westlife are making the better moves.



  1. 1
    Mark G on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Dunno, really.

  2. 2
    JLucas on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Agreed. I loathed Westlife at the time, but I can allow myself to be more charitable these days and acknowledge that their early hits do include a sprinkling of perfectly decent – if unexceptional – Swedish pop tracks that I’d have happily heard from Backstreet Boys or pre-Slave 4 U Britney.

    This is in the top 3 of their canon. Not exactly a competitive field, but given the sheer volume of their output not the faintest possible praise either.

    5 is about right, but Swedish pop is my genre so what the hell, I’ll bump it up to a 6.

  3. 4
    katstevens on 13 Nov 2014 #

    I mostly liked this one! The clunky transitions are somehow quite endearing, much like e.g. Britney’s ‘Lucky’ (which is of course a Max Martin job).

    Haha xpost! Apols for the broken image of Frosta, here’s what she should have looked like.

  4. 5
    Jeremy on 13 Nov 2014 #

    I hated Westlife with a passion. Boyzone had sucked the joy from pop for five long years… but pop groups never last long… they’ll be gone soon… it will all be fine.

    And then Louis Walsh pulled a pop Doctor Who on an unsuspecting public and the regeneration of Boyzone into this even more bland, even more successful, five headed musical juggernaut happened. Woe is all of us.

    And yet I loved (and continue to love) this song – with heavy heart I bought the single and ushered Westlife into my music collection.

    The first verse plods ever so slightly, but the chorus is glorious. And those strings are utterly gorgeous – the slide down from the chorus to verse two is a nice touch. And Br(y)(i)an, while not looking the part, brought a classic boyband voice to this song which is very effective and sits well with the more polished vocal style of Shane.

    Oh, and the entirely superfluous Nicky found his one and only use in Westlife’s career by appearing in the video to this song in a very fetching see-through top which, worryingly, still pleases me as much today as it did then.

    10 (8 for the song and 1 each for Nicky’s nipples)

  5. 6
    wichitalineman on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Their debut was OK, and this is OK+. The change up into the chorus is very attractive, though weirdly the only bit I remember from its limited airplay at the time is “taking the easy way out” – I’d never have remembered it from its title.

    I’m slightly confused on the lyric – is one of them already in a relationship? If not, in what way is he letting her go, and is “taking the easy way out” a suicide reference?

    Then again, I Want It That Way made absolutely no sense at all so I’m probably over-thinking it.

  6. 7
    katstevens on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Great sleeve up there. I was in the changing rooms at M&S trying on some clobber the other day and in retrospect I should have tried on 5 slightly different all-white outfits in tribute.

  7. 8
    katstevens on 13 Nov 2014 #

    PS as we continue through the Wezza catalogue it will become clear that Mark ALWAYS goes for a jacket/warm woollens even when on location in Sunny Climes (i.e. he is the anti-Nicky). I don’t believe I have ever seen past his elbows. Maybe he suffers from poor circulation?

  8. 9
    lonepilgrim on 13 Nov 2014 #

    this is pleasant but unmemorable

  9. 10
    thefatgit on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Are we already at the Westlife “archetype”? This sounds exactly like all the other ‘Loife songs I’ve ever heard and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Were they really this dreadful…all the time? I congratulate Tom with his “a nasty, studs-up key change”, such a delightful phrase.

    The video: iirc, Ilfracombe has black sand. Was it Brueghel’s “Triumph Of Death” the boys were channeling here? In my mind I have devised an alternative ending. No prizes for guessing how I imagined it. (1)

  10. 11
    Tom on 13 Nov 2014 #

    There’s another Westlife hit between us and the Triumph of Death, TFG.

  11. 12
    iconoclast on 13 Nov 2014 #

    At best, ear-candy for people who don’t normally listen to music. At worst, a sappy ballad which should serve as an object lesson in How Not To Do It. TWO.

  12. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Too slight and too bland to be either truly offensive or memorable. Not so much wallpaper as wallpaper glue, albeit devoid of stickiness. 4

  13. 14
    AMZ1981 on 13 Nov 2014 #

    If I Let You Go is the least remembered of Westlife’s 1999 chart toppers and I’ve just revisited it for the first time in ages. Like several others here I’m finding it better than I remembered. However it still feels like an accidental number one. Its first weekly sale was the smallest for a first week chart topper since Blame It On The Weatherman (only modestly so and BIOTW was a fourth single from an album) and indeed only one chart topper inbetween (I Want It That Way) didn’t achieve a six figure sale first week out. In my comment on When You Say Nothing At All I noted that song narrowly managed a second week on top after a close race with Ricky Martin and DJ Jurgen; as WYSNAA sold 10,000 more copies that week than IILYG managed seven days later Westlife could well have missed out quite badly. As it was, the Gods smiled on them.

    And this is the thing with Westlife. In sixty years of the charts no other band has had such good luck with so many average records. Not all of their output is as bad as the cynics suggest and a few songs have endured. Every band is allowed a few minor hits between their famous ones but for Westlife even a minor hit was a chart topper. Was it luck or savvy timing – probably a bit of both.

  14. 15
    The Muppet on 14 Nov 2014 #

    I’m pretty certain they moved the release date of one of their later singles to avoid of couple of big singles that were coming out. With every single peaking in it’s first week it was pretty easy to keep away from any threats to the Number One spot which is why the number of chart toppers increased so dramatically.

    The song itself is ok but I find I’m having to analyse it to find any positives because it’s so forgetable. The main issue with Westlife is how often they kept doing these type of songs and how overexposed they became due to all those lesser hits still making No.1.

  15. 16
    wichitalineman on 14 Nov 2014 #

    Re 15: Does that say something about the competition? Or was it really just good fortune? I’m pretty sure major acts have always avoided each other’s releases – that was certainly true by the Beatles/Stones era.

    Alice Deejay’s record label presumably didn’t think Better Off Alone was a nailed down number one. Three weeks at number two in 1999? Carelessness!

  16. 17
    AMZ1981 on 14 Nov 2014 #

    #15 I agree that avoiding other big new releases was key but at the same time everybody else was playing the same game. If sales are the key indicator Westlife were NOT the biggest pop act of the moment by a long way. Swear It Again and If I Let You Go managed 102,000 and 90,000 first week out respectively. By contrast Venga Boys did 134,000, Boyzone last chart topper did 142,000 and S Club 7 managed a massive 190,000 – and these are just the directly comparable artists. Later on in the year Westlife would be denied a number one album by Steps despite hitting the shelves a week later and arguably appealing more to the album buying demographic. However Steps only trouble the bunny once more and S Club 7 would be waiting a relatively long time before returning to chart topping form.

    Of course it’s possible that the other pop acts were more focused on the product rather than the chart position but if that was Westlife’s aim (to rack up a string of number one singles by targeting quiet sales weeks) you could argue that it worked.

  17. 18
    Mark G on 14 Nov 2014 #

    They could be more fastened on the actual sales, rather than getting to the peak.

    Two weeks at number one getting 90,000 each week, or having an under-the-radar hit that amasses 500K, you know it makes sense.

  18. 19
    Lazarus on 14 Nov 2014 #

    #15 I would guess the reason for that was that they pretty quickly became a covers band and were mostly given songs from 25-30 years earlier, which their young fanbase wouldn’t know. I do remember this one – just – but would it have been number one for anyone else? No more than 3 from me, I’m afraid.

  19. 20
    Patrick Mexico on 16 Nov 2014 #

    Things I never thought I’d say #1: Play Hard, a 2012 hit for French DJ Bunny made me think “He really murdered Alice Deejay.”

    Things I never thought I’d say #2: “Well the West life is probably not the good life… but.. Yay! Only a year and a half till we can discuss nu-metal!”

  20. 21
    mapman132 on 16 Nov 2014 #

    Standard boy band fare. America had already lost interest though: after “Swear It Again” reached #20, this apparently didn’t chart at all, and that was the last heard of Westlife on these shores. 4/10.

  21. 22
    James BC on 17 Nov 2014 #

    The chorus reminds me of “I’d Lie For You And That’s The Truth”. In fact I’d quite like to hear Meat Loaf sing this.

  22. 23
    weej on 17 Nov 2014 #

    Been unwillingly humming this since I first (ever) gave it a listen a few days ago, mainly because the chorus seems to segue naturally into a couple of other songs – Larger Than Life by the Backstreet Boys and Lucky by Britney Spears. Something about that Max Martin trademark way of ending a chorus that really works, I suppose. This is still rubbish though.

  23. 24
    ciaran on 12 Dec 2014 #

    For me this is very similar to All That I Need from a year earlier but tied to a more fresh face image compared to a worn out Boyzone.

    As much as I loathe Westlife it’s about the best boy band song on this site since Back For Good but thats not really saying much.About as tolerant as Westlife get aswell.6

  24. 25
    Musicality on 14 Dec 2014 #

    I think this was my favourite by them as it was just fun and had an upbeat quality in contrast to their boring ballad years to come.

  25. 26
    Cornelius on 26 Jan 2020 #

    Hello westlife, i like your songs very much are you guys still singing together? Wish to here from you again.

  26. 27
    Westlife on 26 Jan 2020 #

    Hi Cornelius, no we are not singing any more, we made enough money and we can’t be bothered any more.

  27. 28
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Typical Westlife fodder, I still can’t see much in this. 3/10.

  28. 29
    Mr Tinkertrain on 16 Jun 2022 #

    What I said on the Swear It Again thread:

    “Taken on its own terms, this is fine – it’s well enough put together, has suitably romantic lyrics (although, as noted, it preaches commitment rather than passion) and has that kind of chorus where all the band members stand up off their stools to sing it (this comment applies to pretty much every #1 they had, so far as I remember).”

    Yep, seems about right. 5.

    I do (despite my better judgement) quite like Ronan’s take on WYSNAA though. That one can have a 6.

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