May 14

AQUA – “Turn Back Time”

Popular40 comments • 6,110 views

#790, 16th May 1998

aquaturn After proving the Aqua formula could work repeatedly, they drop it: “Turn Back Time” is a cryptic, self-hating ballad about choices and dire consequences. In mood it’s closer to Madonna’s “Live To Tell” than any of the band’s own other songs, though it sounds nothing like that. “Turn Back Time” rides a tense, honking Pet Shop Boys sample and is mainly a vehicle for Lena Nystrom’s thickly-accented singing. The boys of Aqua are banished to a strictly backing vocals role at the end of the song. The entertaining Rene gets a day off to growl at Copenhagen passers-by.

Liberated from chirping, Lene has a strong, torchy voice and can sell a phrase – check the resigned and bitter way she sings “Claim your right to science”. More important in this context she can set a mood. In half a verse she’s established a lonely, withdrawn, guilty feeling she might push against in the rest of the song. But the song has other ideas: before its second chorus can end the track ruptures, clanking breakbeats bursting up through its steady rhythm, snips of gasps and cries lurking at the back of the soundfield, and Lene barking out a single line repeatedly. This intrusion – easily the most striking part of a placid track – dies away, and having survived it the singer is longer alone: it’s here the comforting backing vox turn up.

The unexpectedness of “Turn Back Time” – a third Aqua Number One, a ballad at that – means it has a high reputation. I’ve heard people claim it as Aqua’s best. I wouldn’t go that far – it’s a pleasant ballad with one great idea, and there’s a wicked delight in “Barbie Girl” and a more straightforward joy in “Doctor Jones” that it’s a shame to lose even for an odd, off-kilter thing like this. Still, there’s more here than just an impressive demonstration of range: appropriately for a song about regret, something about “Turn Back Time” lingers and nags at the memory. The song’s broken English refuses specifics, which opens up resonant spaces: if you needed depths here, you could find them.



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  1. 31
    Tom on 14 May 2014 #

    I thought the synth-line was a sample – but I admit I didn’t actually go back and check “Heart” to confirm that. And now I write this, I wonder if I was thinking of “I Want To Wake Up” anyway… sloppy of me. I think I got the notion from Wikipedia.

  2. 32

    The LP it’s from came out almost a year before the film, so presumably it’s repurposed. It still seems like a curious connection to have made — maybe someone in the production crew searched a database for relevant-sounding titles and didn’t know to nix Aqua based on their usual MO; so it slipped through, to everyone’s benefit. The film is slight, to say the least, but I think a mix of London-based travelogue and timey-whimey gimmick/high concept, reasonably amiably executed, jumped it from trifle to in-the-moment hit.

  3. 33
    Mark G on 14 May 2014 #

    Well, it’s a lot like how “It must have been love” Roxette got used in “Pretty Woman”

  4. 34
    Cumbrian on 14 May 2014 #

    “Lovely”, “pleasant”, “pleasing” “proper song”, “agreeable”, “real”, “actual proper song”, “sweet”.

    And, frankly, a little bit boring. Good for a change of pace and showing that there are more strings to the bow – and I wouldn’t even necessarily disagree with some of the descriptives above – but not half as engaging as it might have been. A bit like Sliding Doors in fact.

  5. 35
    Alan not logged in on 14 May 2014 #

    The page wikip cites re PSB sample looks less authoritative than FT TBH. it’s just a melody lift surely. And it may be the best thing about awful awful film Sliding Doors.

  6. 36
    Kinitawowi on 15 May 2014 #

    Whosampled.com is my usual go to for picking apart samples, and it’s got nothing on this (and not much more for the PSB Heart; apparently The Ragga Twins used it once, but…). I’m increasingly doubting this one.

    That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few samples in here, but something as prominent as Heart would surely have some form of authoritative log out there by now… surely…

  7. 37
    punctum on 19 May 2014 #

    Their third and final number one in Britain, and not exactly a huge hit elsewhere; the rest of the world didn’t appear to want to accept an Aqua not playing it for laughs, although its popularity here owed much to its inclusion in the alleged romantic comedy Sliding Doors. An exquisite electroballad in the Pet Shop Boys tradition of patient, graceful and immense chord changes with a tortured semi-instrumental break, “Turn Back Time”’s remembrances of chances lost and irretrievable are not without their palpable barbs – “I will always have a cross to wear/But the bolt reminds me I was there” – and while Lene’s vocals still lack a little depth of real hurt, she gorges suitably and sinisterly on the black “hole” of the couplet “Though my pangs of conscience/Will drill a hole in you” and expertly navigates the ghost train bumps and twirls of the echoing-into-hell “if only” internal torture chamber sequence before the latter suddenly stops to let a pause readmit the original sumptuous arrangement. Thereafter Aqua drifted into its constituent components and Lene’s brilliant 2003 album Play With Me – including a take on Xenomania’s “Here We Go” which easily outdoes the Girls Aloud version, even though the backing track is identical – did not even gain a British release. Nonetheless, Annie and Sally Shapiro this way lie.

  8. 38
    ciaran on 20 May 2014 #

    The most surprising Number 1 of the year (Except for a returning legend in the latter half of the year maybe)

    Totally unexpected. We can do serious as well as silly.Enjoyed this a lot 16 years ago but would still prefer Barbie Girl out of all 3 now. TBT is not far off the sound of a lush late 80s ballad.Reminded me of The Captain of Her Heart By Double oddly.This new direction of course wouldn’t last and then it was back to the zany by the end of the year. Still would get 7 from me.

  9. 39
    Patrick Mexico on 12 Aug 2014 #

    What Aqua did next…. well, this was certainly an interesting departure for Soren!


  10. 40
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Rather lovely in my opinion, I’m going with a generous 8/10 here.

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