Kylie’s brief glimpse into pop’s realm of platonic forms only made the central issue starker: British pop was in the doldrums. The Spice Years seemed more than ever like a can shaken too hard: a burst of fizz, and only flatness left behind. It’s not that Blue’s “If You Come Back” or S Club 7’s “Have You Ever” are especially bad songs. In fact that was the problem – each saw their group at full strength, delivering the best ballad they could. It’s not enough.
Both are vignettes of love and regret. Blue’s is weaker and smarmier, a jilted dude trying to understand what he did wrong, professing that next time it’ll work out. Ghosts of better – or at least more famous – songs flicker through the mix: “I Swear” is in there, and there’s a hint of “Always On My Mind” in the bridge. It only makes you notice how thin Blue’s porridge is. Mush-mouthed, the group make “If you come back to my life” sound like “if you come back here alive” – more exciting, but in any case the song isn’t short on the usual hyperbole. Everything is eternal in boyband songs, all loves last all time.
It brings my biggest gripe with this sort of songwriting into focus – there’s so little specific to grasp onto. Great love songs are made by tiny details of place or situation or action – the “forever! Forever!” in Aretha’s “I Say A Little Prayer” is earned by the banality of “coffee break time” just before, for instance. Or they’re improved by odd little bends in language – “Back For Good” doesn’t work without that weird “twist of separation” phrasing. A few years ago I read a study on innovation in car design. The most successful cars, it concluded, matched high prototypicality of design – in layman’s terms, they looked like a car – with high novelty of features. Something similar applies to ballads. Beyond the looks and even the hooks, there has to be some tiny nugget of the unexpected in there. “If You Come Back” has nothing.
Nor, honestly, does “Have You Ever?”, S Club getting a second go at the annual Children In Need song – but it has a better hook, and in Jo O’Meara a singer who’s obviously trying to put a measure of recognisable heartbreak into a rote song. She’s never a subtle performer, but in flashes – her desperate “TELL ME!” heading into the final chorus, and her humbler “I’m sorry” in that chorus – she’s making an effort to force-fit memorable moments into a track that doesn’t really deserve them. It’s the best vocal on an S Club number one, and a reminder of why this is their last. When your strongest songs are clearly solo turns, a seven-person outfit becomes a liability.