Rachel Stevens, "Crazy Boys" (2005)
If it is the case that I sometimes listen to songs while, in my head, I am
the divalicious star who is performing them, then the problem I can have with Rachel Stevens is that I am often much more fabulous that she is. HONEY, the case IS clooosed; I do not
, I said I do NOT
negotiate with love.
On the opener of Rachel's forthcoming album Come And Get It
, "So Good," for example, there is something overly placid and undramatic about the way Rachel sings. Take the line "I like to watch you suffer ever so slightly," which Rachel performs with very little inflection. She doesn't snarl it, or tease us with it; it's neither playful, nor mocking, nor nasty, or campy. She could have lingered a little longer on the word "sliiightly," say, in order to imply that she in fact prefers the suffering to be long and protracted. She doesn't. If the song had been in a language I didn't understand, I wouldn't be able to tell from the way Rachel sings it that it is a "witty" line. Even the faux-scandalous "I let you in my back door" from current single "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)" is barely
a single entendre in her hands.
Of course, I am not the first or only person to comment on Rachel's lack of personality, or, to be more accurate, the way her voice
lacks color. (Not living in the UK, I have very little idea about Rachel's actual public persona.) For some other listeners, Rachel's vocal featurelessness is in fact her strength: James over at Greenpeaness
, for example, likes her precisely because of "how little she tries to diva it up."
Further, I realize all this makes it sound like I don't like Miss Stevens, or the album, but that's not true. The latter implication would be especially misleading: Come And Get It
is certainly one of the strongest pop albums of the year thus far, chockfull of incredible songs that are well-produced and mostly well-realized. Other than "So Good," which I don't much like, the only other songs I could take or leave are "Je M'Appelle," "Secret Garden," "It's All About Me," and on most days I would in fact take them. On a thirteen-song album, that's a mighty impressive ratio. Whether these songs are, and the album is, great in spite of
Rachel is a trickier question. I don't think I would say that, but the question does nag. At the very least, Rachel does have a problem, and one that's worth considering how best to deal with -- worth it to me, since I do want Rachel to be essential to the charm of Come And Get It
, and apparently worth it to Rachel herself and her team.
Judging from the album, Rachel herself knows about the problem. "Dumb Dumb" (about a "girl who lives her life in plastic" and lets you think she's "acting kind of stupid," but is clever enough to turn the "dumb" title into a catchy dum-da-da-dum chorus) might even be a comment on it. Her producers know it too. The album is strikingly full of "humanizing" touches -- the sharp intake of breath that kicks off "So Good" and thus the whole album, the way she mutters "Could you turn down the track a little bit, please?" on "Negotiate With Love," all appear to be attempts to break that fourth wall and convince listeners that she was actually in that recording studio and having a non-robotic day.
Scattershot "humanizing" touches aside, the producers seem to be trying different things to have Rachel's blankness work to her advantage. A few songs ("Je M'Appelle," "I Will Be There") surround Rachel with "dreamy," triphoppy atmospherics. With varying degrees of success: on "Je M'Appelle," Rachel's main vocal sounds a bit too indistinguishable from the backing vocals. (Writing this, I had to go back and listen to remind myself of whether she even sings on the chorus.) (And now I've already forgotten.) "I Said Never Again" gallops away at a furious pace -- the resemblance of the backing track to "Antmusic" has been much noted, but it's almost also a Brazilian batucada -- as if determined to drag a personality out of Rachel if it kills it. These tactics don't entirely work for me, but it's at least entertaining to listen to them try.
"Funny How," which most people are already pegging as a highlight of the album, has much more success. It works because here Rachel's blankness fits the song perfectly. She comes across as numb, tired, and somewhat resigned ("Night got cold/It's almost three/Take these fools away from me" -- so tired that she may not even be bothering with a "the" in front of "night"), and that synchs perfectly with the song. It's the equivalent of Keanu Reeves turning in a good performance in The Matrix
, because his character is meant to be a slacker and tabula rasa.
But the best solution to the Rachel Problem probably comes by way of "Crazy Boys," the other accepted highlight of the album
. (It's quite interesting how listeners have been quite unanimous about which are the album's gems.) The credit must go to producer and co-composer Richard X, with some kudos to lyricist Hannah Robinson. Richard has written music that's so inherently dramatic and cinematic that Rachel can't help but respond with, if not vocal theatrics, than at least vocal color. ("Some Girls," the other Richard X contribution, is much steadier and shuffling in comparison, less prone to building and building towards peaks, and there the male backing vocalists help the drama with their "HEY!s".) A timpani roll and we're off: the backing riff beep-beep-beeps ominously throughout (it sounds a little like a slowed-down, muted version of Stazi's great electro-soul record, "Love Is Lethal"
), and the melody demands emotion from Rachel. She rises to the challenge: "Baby, baby please forgive me/I know not what I do" is very emotive, and the "deliver me from yoooouuuuu" bit is so great that
if I mime it, I have to close my eyes as if in tortured agony. (That's my highest praise.) While not her best work, Hannah's lyric helps too. "For you I wait forever/Nobody does it better": the inversion of the first line gives the thing an epic air, while the second line, with the James Bond aura it invokes, more than keeps up. It's a wonderful track, and one that comes closest to solving the Rachel Problem.