Taller In More Ways
op acts aren’t supposed to release four albums, aren’t supposed to have careers; they’re meant to emerge quickly, define a brief era, and be seen as old hat by the time the second single from the second album comes out. Just look at those two reigniters of the female pop flame for confirmation—both The Spice Girls and their sassier, classier counterparts All Saints burned brightly and then quickly out rather than faded away over the course of several records. Steps and S Club 7 likewise. (Boyzone and Westlife’s extended successes can be ignored due to the significantly older demographic of their fanbase, pensioners being much less avowed by pop.cult. trends and developments.)
Somehow though, Sugababes have managed it, perhaps due more to youthful resilience than the stamina of longevity—Taller In More Ways (title cribbed, paraphrase-style, from the album’s second single, “Ugly”) is their fourth album, their third with Heidi Range after Siobhan Donaghy left, and the girls are barely out of their teens. Not only that but they’ve quietly become the biggest pop act in the UK—lead single “Push The Button” has been number one for three weeks, and prevented Robbie Williams’ comeback single “Tripping” from reaching the top spot despite his effort receiving considerably more airplay and publicity. Trumping Robbie in the charts after more than a year away suggests that Sugababes might just be absolutely massive.
People have speculated as to why this might be the case, suggesting their knack for zeitgeist surfing as a reason—a hip-hop inflected debut single surfed a wave of student nightclub popularity in 2000, and two years later comeback single “Freak Like Me” managed to be both a mash-up AND an electroclash-friendly 80s cover, while “Hole In The Head” in 2003 had a distinctly rock-chick vibe to the raunchy video. But while it’s a convenient pointer with those particular singles, there’s little else to explain why they are, bar Girls Aloud (and possibly not even them), Britain’s biggest pop act.
Put simply, Sugababes are very, very good at what they do, and what they do is make stylish, catchy pop music with wide-ranging appeal. They never veer too far into r’n’b, straight-ahead dance, or tweenager disposability, and for all the suggestions of trend-following they’ve never dramatically altered their sound in order to curry popular favour.
Taller In More Ways seems certain to continue their success by maintaining the rigorous quality-control they’ve kept to thus far; four albums now with precious little filler, and an array of killer singles both used and unused on each. If you’re bothered by this kind of thing, then you’ll be pleased to know that Sugababes have called on the services of Dallas Austin (TLC, Madonna, Pink), Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Britney Spears), and Cathy Dennis (Kylie) for some of the tracks here, while continuity is kept up by continuing their long-standing working relationships with Brian Higgins, Cameron McVeigh, and Johnny Rockstar.
The result is as you would expect—a fourth strong album in a row. There are a couple less swoonsome ballads than one might imagine (reportedly the girls left them off because they’d be “slated by the British press,” but more may be included on a US release) and more up-tempo floor-fillers (most evident in the maximalist stomp of “Red Dress,” like Girls Aloud if they dated cricketers rather than footballers, and surely a future single), but otherwise it’s business as usual. The opening triumvirate of songs starts with the big single (naturally), works in an Aaliyah facsimile (“Gotta Be You” is disarmingly close to “Try Again”) and then breaks out the luscious, romantic strings on “Follow Me Home”—it’s a textbook example of how to start a pop album in the mid 00s.
“Ugly” is vastly superior self-help pop, lovingly produced as you’d expect with acoustic guitars buoyed by peripheral detail, while the bizarrely-titled “Joy Division” (seemingly neither about Ian Curtis or Nazi whores) is a bass-heavy groove with bizarre lyrics about how the Sugababes “Ain't just some piece of meat sitting in a delicatessen.” “Obsession” is a pleasant but unspectacular cover of Animotion’s 80s hit (yeah, me neither), while both “Bruised” and “Better” are serious future single contenders featuring superbly catchy backing vocals (“da-na-na”s in the former, “ooh-ooh-ooh”s in the latter). One of my favourite tracks, but undoubtedly denounced elsewhere for being mawkish and over-dramatic, is album closer “2 Hearts,” which is like an unashamedly pop take on Elbow’s “Grace Under Pressure” (it’s all about the percussion and scale), eschewing the profane Glastonbury crowd choir in favour of epic strings and horns. It’s lush, in a word.
So there you have it. It’s not the best album in the world or even of the year, not obscurantist schizeclecto meta-pop like Annie or M.I.A. or loaded down with po-mo pop.cult. signifiers like Girls Aloud, it doesn’t impart a skewed existential narrative like Britney, but Taller In More Ways is absolutely bursting with tunes, and as such it’s hard to resist.