The differences between Blue’s “Too Close” and Next’s “Too Close” don’t seem profound – four years, a few production gewgaws, a mild shift in context between male US R&B group and UK boyband – so why does the original make me smile and the cover make me wince? Might it just be that I don’t like Blue? Simon Cowell, who managed Five, had his fingers all over a pre-incarnation of Blue. But every boyband is pitched a little differently, however similar the origin stories. If Five were a cartoon attempt at the Spice Boys, Blue were All Saints’ younger brothers. A little cooler than the average boyband; a lot more knowing. They owed something to East 17 – the first British boyband to drop the niceties and sing about fucking – but they were a hell of a lot smoother and less awkwardly intriguing than Tony Mortimer’s mob.
In short, Blue had pretensions to sophistication which let them stand out. For a single or so, they fitted the bill – “All Rise”, their courtroom-conceit debut, was a good thrust at moody R&B pop. But their US takeover plans were strangled in the crib, thanks to Lee Ryan’s concern that a mourning nation might forget the lessons of “Earth Song”*. Their sophistication died on the vine. The Blue we meet on Popular are mostly just another boyband, albeit a smugger one than usual.
“Too Close” captures both sides of them. It’s theft with pedigree – “Too Close” was a 1998 summer jam in the USA, a modest hit here, and a single that walked the thin like between goofy and sexy with aplomb. Each of Next’s two lead singers confess their uncontrollable dancefloor excitement in a way that slides from apology to flirtation without a blink. It’s endearing at worst, and it helps that the track’s production gives them space to act, ad lib, and deliver fine R&B performances. There’s a scratchy little guitar line near the start that roots the song, linking old R&B to new – “Too Close” is a New Jack take on the ribald end of soul.
Blue – or producer Ray Ruffin – make several changes, none of which help the single. Most obviously, the track switches from a showcase for solo voices to a group effort, four singers stepping on each other’s lines, with the unison chorus brought higher in the mix. You see this a lot in the boyband era – tracks losing focus when adapted for multiple voices. “Too Close” isn’t nearly as egregious as “Against All Odds” was, but the shift to boyband mode muddles it. The production is more crowded, too – stray burps of vocoder at the beginning, synth washes smothering the verses, the arranger’s equivalent of a good spray of Lynx before Blue head out on the pull.
And that’s the problem, in the end. Blue aren’t strong enough to carry the song, but even if they were better, the shift in context to become a British boyband hit subtly reweights the song, and makes it somehow grimmer. No longer does “Too Close” call to mind steamy encounters in American nightclubs; instead it makes you think of unwanted stiffies at the school disco.