18
May 15

ALL SAINTS – “Black Coffee”

Popular70 comments • 7,038 views

#876, 14th October 2000

saintscoffee All Saints’ final number one is their most oblique, their most grown-up, also their finest. The song barely glances at its title – a pair of words out of a hundred in the lyric – but the whole record is a glance or a quiet smile, a celebration of tiny satisfactions, and of finding yourself with someone who conjures them so easily. “Each moment is cool / freeze the moment”. It’s a song, most of it, about feeling contented – a rare subject for pop, which prefers to nose out conflict (the video finds some anyway, staging “Black Coffee” as a post-Matrix bullet time break-up drama). There are songs – cousins to this, like “I Say A Little Prayer” – that capture the way love makes the everyday blush with significance, but “Black Coffee” is after something more comfortable. A day with your lover, as casually sweet as all the other ones. Nothing’s perfect, but “Black Coffee”’s rippling, overlapping melody lines make even the quarrels sound blissful.

It’s a lovely record, two late 90s takes on pop meshing and peaking: All Saints’ idea of a British female harmony group, and William Orbit’s gorgeous dissolve of pop into ambient bubbles and flows. (Both now disappear: All Saints split, to largely unsuccessful ends; Orbit, jilted by his primary collaborator, stepped back from the charts.) The combination, as on “Pure Shores”, is irresistibly of its time: unlike that record, “Black Coffee” isn’t pure escapism. Around the edges of this playful song snaps another, one with a harder bite. The opening and breakdown of “Black Coffee” – crunching drums, radar synths – is like a more unforgiving world which our couple spend the mid-song cocooning themselves away from.

The snap and turn of those opening beats makes me think of catwalk photography; the video feels more like a magazine shoot than a relationship. Probably more than anyone since the early 80s, All Saints were a band who felt like they belonged in fashion, a style press imagining of what pop could be like. They always looked the part, but often the music strained too hard to live up to its references. Finally, with the Orbit collaborations, they got there, and “Black Coffee” is the greatest realisation of the All Saints concept – their most perfectly glossy exterior, and only warmth inside.

9

Comments

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  1. 1
    Rory on 18 May 2015 #

    First listen. William Orbit was part of so much great music circa 1998-2000, wasn’t he? Love the coda.

    Never change, Wikipedia: “Production-wise, ‘Black Coffee’ incorporates an ambient tomfoolery developed by William Orbit, of which is combined with liquid techno qualities.”

    Apparently also a favourite of Neil Hannon’s.

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 18 May 2015 #

    to my ears there’s a hint indie in the melody and harmonies of the ‘I don’t wanna be’ section – one that seeks to emulate an imagined ’60s West Coast American rock. It’s aural catnip for me but I love the way that the song switches between different moods and melodies. If you’ve got to go, go out on a high

  3. 3
    Idris on 18 May 2015 #

    This song may have literally saved my life. On the long (6 hour) drive back from a family holiday on the south coast of NSW, my dad was beginning to nod off at the wheel. He’d taken breaks, had his coffee and a kit kat etc, but we were very stressful kids. We put on 2day FM and this song came on- and dad liked it! This sleepy, ambient, chill out track acted like literal black coffee and kept dad awake for the final stretch of the drive and we arrived home safely.

    For me, it’s an 8. Pure Shores is the All Saints 9. But it’s really great, and seems unjustly forgotten.

  4. 4
    Lazarus on 18 May 2015 #

    Oddly, I heard this on the radio just the other day, for the first time in many a year. It’s all the more enjoyable I think, precisely for not being over-exposed like ‘Never Ever’ has been. And the chorus reminds me very much of Saint Etienne, always a good thing.

  5. 5
    Phil on 18 May 2015 #

    I had no recollection of this song & was expecting to recognise it instantly. Actually I recognised the chorus instantly, but I don’t think I’d ever listened to it properly before – and that includes listening to the chorus. I think it’s amazing. That thing Orbit does with the beats – of having a double-time beat running throughout & just bringing it up in the mix when he wants to kick it up a bit – works superbly; the choruses achieve a weird combination of floaty bliss and jerkily urgent bopping. It must have been quite a floor-filler in its day. (And the coda just says “put this record on again”.) Even better than Pure Shores, I think – and I bought PS. Definite 9.

    The video is weird, though – both the song and the band’s cameos are wildly incongruous. I thought they were going to end by turning it round & putting the woman on top, but at the end the band are still doing their thing and she’s cowering behind the kitchen units. Whatever happened to girl power?

  6. 6
    Paulito on 18 May 2015 #

    To my ears, there’s a strong melancholic undercurrent throughout this song – a fatalistic sense (which is more than hinted at in the chorus) that the narrator’s bliss cannot last, and that her own insecurities may well be the undoing of the relationship. And, for me, that strain of melancholy and adult self-awareness is what elevates this very pretty song to the ranks of greatness. A definite 8, possibly a 9.

  7. 7
    Tom on 18 May 2015 #

    For me it sounds like acceptance of faults, rather than fatalism (I lean that way because the music’s so forgiving) – but either way, yes, adult self-awareness is right.

  8. 8
    wichitalineman on 18 May 2015 #

    I always think of contentment as something to fight, even in a relationship, to stop it slipping into inertia. But this makes a very good case for occasionally closing your eyes and thinking “You know what? This is pretty perfect.” It’s a beautiful record.

    The intro/outro – especially the outro – sounded bolted on to me at the time, as if a wing of the group was fighting for a new direction which never came. Now it sounds like a necessary counterbalance, as Tom points out. Brave, too, so Black Coffee is the mechanical grind of the everyday with an oasis at its heart, an Up On The Roof for the 2000s.

    It’s a song I wished I’d written the second I heard it (but I was too busy fighting contentment/inertia at the time to have come up with anything as sweet, straightforward, and melancholic).

    Oh, and I’ve always heard “freeze the moment” as “the weasel moment”. Thanks for clearing that up.

  9. 9
    swanstep on 18 May 2015 #

    William Orbit himself comments on the youtube vid. for this track as follows: “Recording the vocal harmonies on this one was pure joy. And the notes just poured out of my guitar, with such inspiration.”
    Anyhow, cracking track that may be very of its time but also feels relatively timeless. Less memorable than ‘Pure Shores’ but maybe even more pleasurable (those harmonies, that backing) when you’re actually listening to it. About the only objection I have to BC is that the underlying song has to rank behind at least the songbook standard with the same name and Squeeze’s ‘BC in Bed’. Still, this is tasteful, classy pop writing and recording of a very high order:
    8

  10. 10
    wichitalineman on 18 May 2015 #

    It was co-written by one of the richest women in the world. Thanks to the Evening Standard’s David Smyth for pointing this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirsty_Bertarelli#cite_note-2

  11. 11
    Tom on 18 May 2015 #

    Such a great fact. Especially as it sounds like it was co-written by one of the richest women in the world. It would be a bit disappointing if her one great pop success was “Flava” or something.

  12. 12
    Mark G on 18 May 2015 #

    The music reminded me of a fair bit of Beth Orton’s “Superpinkymandy” album, obviously the producer is the same but the vocals get a better deal here.

    I was going to wonder if anyone else knew that obscure CD, I’m sure you must do..

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 18 May 2015 #

    Pretty much expected to be a fave amongst the Populistas, and who am I to disagree? Orbit provides all the requisite smoothed out blissed-out noises to complement the harmonies. Strangely enough, their final single was not this, but the eyebrow-raising hip-hop of “All Hooked Up” with the unforgettable “why’s this fool all up in my ass?”. Quite.

    I’m sort of OK with the feeling of contentment here. The suggestion put forward by those instant homilies you might find on the internet is that if you see only perfection in your partner, then it’s still infatuation. If you know your partner is less than perfect, but it matters not a jot, then it’s love. “Black Coffee” where imperfections are happily accepted with grace, suggests the latter. Even so, not wanting to change anything still smacks a little of resigned acceptance rather than outright confrontation. I couldn’t imagine the much-publicised Appleton/Gallagher partnership being so smooth. (9)

  14. 14
    Ed on 18 May 2015 #

    This is the All Saints bunny you were looking for.

    Tom and others have already anticipated much of what I had planned to say about this wonderful record, right down to the parallel with ‘I Say A Little Prayer’.

    One reason for the connection, of course, is ISALP’s line about “all through my coffee break time”, and it seems to me that although ‘Black Coffee’s title is sort-of incidental, it is also sort-of central. Coffee is a perfect metaphor for those “tiny satisfactions”: exhilarating but reassuring, everyday but special, bitter but delicious, subtly addictive.

    Interesting that coffee is used in that way in songs performed or written by women. For male songwriters, in the two examples I can think of, it is a symbol of domesticity being destroyed: by the man in Dylan’s ‘One More Cup of Coffee for the Road’; by the woman in George Jones’ ‘Good Year for the Roses’.

    For more, see my forthcoming book: ‘One More Cup of Coffee: caffeine, gender roles and the social construction of relationships in popular song in the second half of the 20th Century’.

    One day I guess I should listen properly to Blur’s ‘Coffee and TV’ to see if it fits my thesis.

  15. 15
    Izzy on 18 May 2015 #

    ‘Back for Good’ fits your thesis as well.

    I thought I didn’t know this song, but of course I do. It does sound lovely, but I’m not quite as taken as most here. I like the mood, but (entirely appropriately I suppose) it isn’t hitting many emotional peaks or troughs – they could do with ramping up the melancholy a tad. The bookends actually are very useful for breaking the record out of its comfort zone- nice as it is, without that bit of dissonance it risks passing unnoticed. I’d go for a (7) I think.

    It really is reminiscent of Saint Etienne, especially one of my very favourites: Shower Scene from Finisterre, which does serve up that melancholy. I’d always put the bloopy rhythm down to a kind of cottonwool Warp influence, but having read this thread I wonder if the typically Orbit break at 1:08 here is the real direct ancestor.

  16. 16
    Ed on 18 May 2015 #

    Oh, and I agree about the video: a bizarre attempt to turn a song about contentment into a song about conflict.

    The only way I can reconcile myself to it is to think of it as the song’s mirror image, the shadow of misery lurking somewhere even amidst the greatest happiness. Like one of those memento mori skulls in a renaissance painting.

  17. 17
    Tom on 18 May 2015 #

    It feels very much as if they had the idea to do a bullet time mirror smashing scene, and the budget to do one, but not the song. And the song lost.

  18. 18
    Ed on 18 May 2015 #

    @15 ‘Back For Good’ does fit, you’re right! I didn’t know that.

    Although the line is so similar, it makes me wonder if Gary Barlow borrowed it from George Jones, presumably via the Elvis Costello version.

  19. 19
    Mark G on 18 May 2015 #

    There’s clouds in my coffee, but she poured it only halfway, and before I even argue, I’ve drunk my coffee, and you’ve sipped your tea.

    No sugar sugar, thanks.

  20. 20
    Chelovek na lune on 19 May 2015 #

    Yeah, this is classy, and high quality, portrait of contentment, as everyone says, pleasingly – as one feels it has been rather overlooked compared with other All Saints No 1s. Very smooth and of its time; polished without the polish seeping the life from it. 8 or 9. Only “War of Nerves” rivals its attempts to claim the crown of All Saints singles.

    #14, #15 “A Lover Sings” by Billy Bragg more or less does, too, albeit the domesticity being destroyed marks the start of the relationship, not the end. – although it was never going to be a stable or entirely satisfactory one..

  21. 21
    mapman132 on 19 May 2015 #

    I’ve been greatly anticipating this one for the past three months. Considering my reaction to “Pure Shores” and the fact that many on the PS thread were saying “Black Coffee” was even better, I was half-expecting some sort of quasi-religious experience. Did I get it? Unsurprisingly, no. Nothing ever lives up to that sort of anticipation. But….

    Having listened to BC first two weeks ago, and multiple times in the past couple days, I can say it’s grown on me. Not as good as PS, but at least an 8 that I could stretch to 9. One thing that threw me initially is it sounds like two songs in one: the sort-of-rapping intro/outro/middle section, and the main melody. The outro especially threw me: it sounds like the song’s going for a typical fade out, and then that starts in the final minute. Can’t decide which way I would prefer. Also, seemed like a strange choice of song title, although it makes a little more sense after reading through this thread.

    Finally, it’s interesting the way people are getting a melancholy vibe here, because I’m getting it too. But I wonder if I’m feeling it differently. I think my melancholia stems from wishing someone would sing something beautiful like this to me.

  22. 22
    DanH on 19 May 2015 #

    Ooh ooh ooh, I can come out of the woodworks now!

    I like this song a lot, more so than the still-great Pure Shores. Of course, I’m also in the “Baby Love” > “WDOLG” and the “ADAAOTN” > “You Really Got Me,” for what that’s worth. The harmonies get at me too, esp. “take….everything out on/YOU”

    I’m surprised to hear this being about contentment. It always struck me as a morning after a fight, when time has passed and there’s been time to think about what you said and what your lover said. It’s a resigned feeling, I can detect melancholy like Mapman does. I misheard “freeze the moment” too…knowing that lyric might alter my thoughts.

    8

  23. 23
    wichitalineman on 19 May 2015 #

    “Weasel moment”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV9UUPNe5nM

  24. 24
    Phil on 19 May 2015 #

    Interesting the way the chorus picks up on the self-reproach of Never Ever – she’s definitely the snake in this garden, or else (more positively) her lack of self-belief is.

    Speaking of gardens, just noticed that the guy in the video ends up throwing handfuls of leaves in the air, while the woman is last seen not (as I thought) in the corner of the kitchen but behind a boxy structure with grass growing out of it – some sort of urban raised bed, presumably. Greenery all round. What does it all mean?

    #14 – The Leiber and Stoller song Where’s the Girl? is another coffee/break-up song (“Where’s the girl who used to fix me my coffee and butter up my toast?”). But Coffee and TV, like its (for me) superior blueprint You’re So Great, is basically about drying out. Which I think is different again.

    Tea, tea and coffee
    Helps to start the day
    Tea, tea and coffee
    Shaking all the way
    City’s alive – a surprise, so am I –
    Tea, tea and coffee
    Get no sleep today…

  25. 25
    Steve Mannion on 19 May 2015 #

    To join a couple of threads here – “Sunday morning I’m waking up, can’t even focus on a coffee cup…” – Beth Orton on the Chems ‘Where Do I Begin?’

  26. 26
    Shiny Dave, logged out on 19 May 2015 #

    I got this mixed up with Pure Shores when commenting on the latter – thought that was the one with the waiting/anticipating rhyme. Knocked it down from a 9 to an 8, quite unfairly.

    I stand by both of these being a 9 and for that rhyme to be worth -1, I just penalised the wrong song. It stands out so much because so much else is so good in this song – it’s like how my current phone’s white plastic sides stand out amongst the gorgeous metal body when it wouldn’t be a huge deal in less impressive surroundings.

    Both are magnificent pop productions from Orbit, and this song probably is slightly the better either side of the opening/closing section which ends with that rhyme. The sort of song there isn’t enough of.

  27. 27
    Ed on 19 May 2015 #

    @26 Yes, there’s a nicely enigmatic little twist of intertextuality in the “beach” and “shore” references in Black Coffee.

    Another reason to think of them as a linked pair of songs, and to get them mixed up.

    @24 Now I’ve read the lyrics to Coffee and TV, it seems like an answer record to Country House, where Graham Coxon can sympathise with the impulses that make burned-out rockers retreat from their hedonistic lifestyles. Not sure where that fits in my thesis, to be honest. Might have to make it an appendix.

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 19 May 2015 #

    “Tea’s gone cold…” oh, wait!

  29. 29
    James BC on 19 May 2015 #

    I can’t be the only person who never got this one. It’s too floaty and tends to fade from my memory soon after I hear it, or even while I’m still listening. Perhaps it could become a favourite with repeated listens, but who has the time?

    For me the title also works against it. Normally I’m in favour of non-obvious titles – I love Ash – but this song is already struggling for a hook. The title is a chance to highlight a part of the song that will stick in the mind – to manufacture or signpost a hook that might otherwise be missed – so to waste it on verse lyrics, however important thematically, seems like a misstep in this case.

  30. 30
    Susanna on 19 May 2015 #

    This is a great song and I agree with the general consensus – a 9 for me too. I have just watched the video for the first time in ages, and while I agree with other commenters that it seems to contradict the mood of the song, I think that’s the point of it. It’s highlighting certain sections of the lyrics – ‘freeze the moment’ obviously, but also: ‘I wouldn’t want to take anything out on you/though I know I do/ every time I fall’. The fighting couple seem to be playing out a scenario of taking things out on each other. And thus the moment that gets frozen may not necessarily be a good one. I quite like the contrast of the complacency and contentment of the lyrics and the harshness of the video, but I can see why others might find it jarring.

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