The fifth and final number one from Westlife’s debut, “Fool Again” is an unhappy ending on every level. For once, the lads don’t realise their mistake in time to turn things round and win back their beloved. In fact – gasp – she’s found someone else, leading to a coda in which the band drop the creamy close harmonies and indulge in unrepentant yowling and breast-beating. It’s an undignified sound, but it’s the only musical distinction in “Fool Again”: otherwise we’re in well-ironed, not actively unpleasant Cheiron ballad territory. The guys are good enough anaesthetists by now that nothing grates, and perhaps if you shifted enough of the blanketing away you’d find a pea of interest in the song. But probably not.
Still though, five number ones off one album: that’s something. Nothing good, but something. For all that a close look at Westlife’s success reveals how much of their record-breaking was down to canny singles placement – and beyond that simply luck – by now they appeared, in public, unstoppable. A band with a colossal fanbase, ready to sweep any challengers away. It would make the ride easier from this point.
Westlife weren’t the only group to pump out singles from their albums – and while five releases isn’t exactly modest, it wasn’t absurd by CD era standards. REM’s much-loved Automatic For The People went one further, and five would have been at the low end of a Michael Jackson album campaign. Of course it’s the sustained success that’s remarkable – and that it was sustained by such ferocious focus on a target market. But you could – as “Go Let It Out” made clear – have said the same as Oasis. Westlife weren’t even loathesome: small girls and their mums are never well-respected by vocal fans of other music, so the group caught hate to a degree their competent music didn’t honestly deserve. It was awfully boring – “Fool Again” no exception – but it rarely imposed itself longer than a week.
Still, a wider unease lay behind the groans at Westlife’s success – a sense that Westlife and Oasis and assorted trance hits might be part of the same problem: a pop culture whose connective tissue had atrophied, islands of fans with nothing useful to say to one another. Was that new? Perhaps not, but the giddy pace of the charts made it more acute. I don’t totally agree with that gloomy diagnosis: behind the scenes, the turnover of number ones in 2000 is mostly a function of labels gaming the chart system. But records like “Fool Again” remind me that sometimes the chart was also just what it looked like, an unmixed salad of records that treat fans as bank machines and either can’t keep a grip on a wider audience or never cared to in the first place.