* It may seem odd to be writing a review of a slightly-better-than-middling pop single that’s three years old; but there is a point, which you can learn about by reading here. It’s not a particularly good point but it might offer succour if you really need to know why.
This is not going to come as much of a surprise because as regular listeners will know I’m something of a pop tart, but I fricking loved Steps V1.0. Well, not “5-6-7-8” quite so much because line dancing is one of those things that should have been consigned to the great pedal bin of life a long time ago.
But every other Steps single, and most especially the singles from the first two albums, are just about perfect as far as pop goes. So when Spotify pushed “Story of a Heart” at me (and having just recently watched the Steps Reunion thing on YouTube – such shade!) I decided I would make this my first regular review. And I decided I would do it in the manner of the great Guardian MBMs and OBOs, because this is my blog, and not yours.
Hello. Sometimes, life has a funny habit of folding back in on itself like a little origami ouroboros, and this is just such an occasion. When pop prestidigitateur and toy train troubler Pete Waterman decided to get involved in the Steps ‘project’, he stated that he wanted to recreate the sound of Abba (“on speed”, apparently). During the first incarnation of the band, the Stepsters would cover “Lay All Your Love On Me” for the Abbamania
low cost schedule filler TV tribute show which you may remember for a revolutionary performance from Irish insomnia erasers Westlife, who started out their performance sitting on stools and then – get this! – actually stood up to sing the last chorus. Amazing.
As part of this debacle, Faye, Claire, Lisa, H and the other one joined forces with some of pop’s biggest names (Cleopatra, Tina Cousins, B*Witched and Billie Piper) to sing an Abba tribute medley, the imaginatively titled “Thank You For The Music”, and let’s take a moment here to remember all those affected by Billie’s red jumpsuit.
And we’re back. So, what do we know about “Story of a Heart”? Well, apparently it was ‘penned’ by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in 2009 for the Benny Andersson Band’s eponymous album (what an ego). From the original “Abba on speed” mission statement, to singing their songs on the telly, Steps now have a song of their own (sort of) written by the creative seventies hair powerhouses behind Abba’s greatest hits. The circle of life is complete.
So, shall we take a look at the song in question? Otherwise there’s not really much point in us being here and judging by the visitor numbers for the blog, that’s a course of action you’ve already decided to take and no one can really blame you for it.
And here it is:
00:00 It’s a “One for Sorrow” piano opening! Hurrah! I must admit, I was a little nervous once I spotted that the single was seven seconds longer than the advised 3:30 length that statistics have laid down for our guidance. Perhaps the fade is unnecessarily extended but I guess we’ll find out when we get there.
00:05 Wait, where did the piano go? Something isn’t quite right here. There’s a little mournful note there that subtly changes things.
00:10 Claire starts singing. Having seen the Steps Reunion programme recently I realise now what A Big Fucking Deal it is to have Claire singing lead and how many ructions that caused. That said; Claire is the best singer in the band. There’s a reason that Cristiano Ronaldo takes all the set pieces, and it’s not that he won that privilege in a lottery.
00:46 NO! You can’t just go straight into a chorus from a piano opening like that. There has to be a bridge. You bring the strings in, maybe add some percussion, sing the bridge, and then go into the chorus. Everyone knows that. It’s not a stripped back, “One for Sorrow” chorus, either. The percussion comes in and it’s strangely leaden and plodding. Who produced this?
Hmmm. The CV is stacked, but they’ve done a remix of Little Mix’s “Move”, and we all know that you don’t mess with the classics.
00:51 The chorus seems to swoop up and down a bit, which if was being kind I would say was in iambic hexameter but actually just sounds like a police car siren. The classic ABBA Plan B harmonies are there, though; the downtempo, introspective harmonies like you get on “The Winner Takes It All”, except this is less “winner takes it all” and more “eliminated two rounds before the final in a lip sync challenge with Alexis Michelle”.
01:05 I’m a bit distracted by Claire’s hair. I’m never quite sure whether the Morrissey quiff suits her, says the enby with hereditary male pattern baldness, although she absolutely owns it and looks completely badass wearing it, so more power to her.
01:18 The chorus ends very abruptly. You expect there to be another line there. At least it grabs your attention, which is more than you can say for the rest of the chorus, I’m afraid.
01:23 Faye sings the second chorus. Faye was always my favourite – the blonde funky dreds were very rad, man.
02:00 Another chorus? The unwritten rules are quite clear for all to see. You can’t have a verse that’s shorter than the chorus. Everyone knows you just ran out of words, or it was getting close to lunch and you were desperate for an M&S ‘Super Green’ edamame and minted pea on chia and linseed bread sandwich. The only thing worse is just repeating the first verse with extra synths and percussion.
02:32 Take me to the bridge. I can’t tell who is singing. I’m going for Claire (there’s no official video yet). Unless it’s Lisa, because she hasn’t done a lead part yet.
02:54 Where’s the middle eight? Oh wow, these crazy Steps kids are serving up ‘took the rulebook and just threw it away’ realness here.
03:08 A capella harmonies! Take that, critics who said Steps can’t sing.
03:37 Song ends! The song technically ends at about 3:32 and the rest is just the last dying embers of the fade. Two seconds over time, I can live with that.
What’s the verdict?
Well, when I started out writing this I’ll be honest and say I didn’t like it. I felt a bit short-changed when I realised I wasn’t going to get “One for Sorrow 2017”. However, the song is very Abba. It’s no stretch at all to imagine Bjorn and Benny strumming along while Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin sing along in matching shiny jumpsuits and unfashionable silk berets. It’s not just the structure or the harmonies or the cod-serious lyrics, it’s in every little guitar lick and chord progression – it’s in literally every single sound. It also uses the phrase “the back of a bus”, which is quite something in itself. It’s Steps’ “guilty feet” moment.
If you said to a decent songwriter, “hey, Steps are back and they’re all grown up now (not in a Daily Mail way), could you write us a slightly downtempo song with depth that takes a couple of listens to get into and sounds exactly like Steps but all grown up (not in a Daily Mail way) please?” this is exactly what you’d get back.
And that, it turns out, is No Bad Thing At All.