Scroll through the YouTube reactions or the positive reviews of this record and one word keeps recurring: “Pure Shores” is relaxing. All Saints’ bath bomb voices meet William Orbit’s hot tub production and the result – by comment consensus – is a few snatched minutes of bliss in a careworn world. At the turn of the millennium, the stock of relaxation in music was never higher. In an earlier entry I talked about the turn of the 00s as a “self-satisfied, low-stakes” era in British pop culture, a lull between the self-consciousness of the mid-90s and the defiant fixed grins of the mid-00s. A contented kind of time embraced a contented kind of music: chillout thrived.
It wasn’t just the times, of course: the success of chillout brands like the endless Cafe Del Mar compilation series also spoke to the unshiftable fact that the original generation of British ravers wasn’t getting any younger. There was a little of the old ambient house DNA in the chillout mix – Air’s proggish synth explorations, or the puckish whimsy of Lemon Jelly. But you could draw a stronger line back to the serious-minded atmospherics of trip-hop. More importantly, the success – and global pretensions – of chillout saw it travel on paths broken by the likes of Sasha or Paul Oakenfold. Dance music culture embraced the DJ jet set, and the idea of a shrinking planet – one where you might play downtempo beats in Montevideo before hopping to Kyoto for a big room set – played a big part in establishing superstar DJ mythology. Chillout music offered the sun-kissed day to superclub nights – and its easy, weightless, cultural blends were just as much a soundtrack for a globalised world. So what did you do with your days as a traveler in Ibiza, Goa, Sydney or Madagascar? You went to the beach.
After all, the Thomas Friedman style dream of a flattened Earth didn’t end with the music. British pop and British travel are intimately linked. The story of Popular has tracked British holiday destinations and aspirations, from the exotic dreams of the Shadows, through Cliff Richard in France and naff Spanish souvenirs and onto Ibiza. That British party Empire reached its widest extent as the 90s ended and backpackers spilled out into India, Asia, South America, gluing trinket signifiers of local culture onto dance music as they did. The Beach, the Alex Garland novel that became the film All Saints were writing for, is a creation nailed to its times, a fantasy of self-discovery through strife on a perfect beach in a world freed from geopolitics. Temporarily, as it happened.
In other words, a song about a beach, flecked with chillout bubbles and ripples, called “Pure Shores” is about as 2000 a pop-cultural object as you could possibly imagine. Add in the fact that it’s very good, and no wonder it became one of the year’s biggest sellers. All Saints, from the beginning, kept answering very similar questions: what if girl group pop grew up, got sophisticated, became fashionable? Having ended up at sleek R&B with their final 1998 singles, you could easily imagine the group keeping on in a more American direction, trying to become the British TLC. As the Spice Girls would find out later in the year, this was no easy mission. The choice of William Orbit as a co-writer and producer – a man with very firm roots in techno and ambient music – helped All Saints dodge that particular trap.
And it’s as a pop take on ambient music that “Pure Shores” works. This is a beautifully unified song, as much like “Good Vibrations” as any contemporary pop – form, mood and content all pushing in one thematic direction, an evocation of paradise, soothing spiritually and physically. The lapping of the rising and falling synths, the vocal lines swirling around one another, the patient, strolling pace of the song, the chorus’ giddy surge, and ultimately the crash and spray of the bridge – it’s all going to the same place. It’s not an especially thrilling record, more one that settles quickly into comfortable familiarity. But comfort and relaxation are good things, nourishing things, as long as they aren’t all pop (or culture) aims for. From the vantage point of 2015, where the rest of the world is more often approached with sorrow or fear than touristic zeal, the year 2000 is itself a vanished country, half blessed, half naive. “Pure Shores” is a traveller’s daydream of it, a torn-off scrap of map.