here’s a lyric in the new Sugababes album that states “it’s about the music / not the face…” which is a lie if ever I heard one. Last night I watched about two minutes of Pop Idol and in those two minutes Pete Waterman made a fat girl cry because she didn’t look the part. Simon Cowell actually demonstrated a modicum of human emotion by not sticking the knife in, reminding people that the female contestant had been ill during the week, and then agreeing that she wasn’t good enough because of her dress, because she was out-performed, because she wasn’t good enough. Whether they meant her voice, face, girth, presence or posture is unclear.
Sugababes are good enough. Post-Angels With Dirty Faces (whether they were referencing Tricky, James Cagney or Sham 69 with the title is confused) there have been all sorts of rumours of band disharmony and infighting; Mutya is being bullied by Heidi and Keisha, Mutya is bullying Heidi and Keisha, Mutya and Keisha are bullying Heidi, none of the three likes any of the others at all. Having already experienced one awkward membership change when Siobhan Donaghy left after One Touch, it looked as if Sugababes were in danger of lining themselves up for a career fuelling salacious Popbitch soundbites, the whispered images of three cat-fighting schoolgirls at odds with the insouciant sorority and feminist ennui of their music. They’ve already been saved once by a magnificent left-field mind-meld pop hit (“Freak Like Me”), but that kind of serendipitous zeitgeist fulcrum isn’t something that can be banked on as the foundation for a regular career, especially when you’re barely out of your teens.
They needn’t worry though, because Three is almost ridiculously assured, confident and unified. If there were a couple of faltering steps on Angels… they’ve been eradicated here, and that it follows that album by only 14 months or so suggests that the bitchiness rumours are just that; rumours. Sugababes simply can’t have had time to produce an album as good as Three if they were busy scratching eyes out and stealing boyfriends.
“Hole In the Head” you know, the rock-club video and irresistible “because I do / boy / because of you / boy” harmonies, “Whatever Makes You Happy” takes the Gary Numan thing a step further, accelerating Sugababes perfect 21st century clubpop into the future. The minimal tech-funk of “Twisted” vibes off an arrested Knightrider-type bassline, some microcosmic guitar and the sound of a bank of sequencers swaying in an electronic breeze. The hiphop call-and-response refusal of “Buster” is taken in different directions by parping horns, frayed electronics and disembodied male operatics (an inversion of house’s continual reliance on faceless divas?). They even manage to imbue the ballads with a weight of emotional clarity that had previously been missing, the girls no longer seeming to compete over who can be the most laconic and absently moody, but rather propping each other up and pushing each other forward.
It seems trite to refer to Sugababes as sassy or streetwise or sophisticated because that’s what everybody says. The problem is that it’s true. It’s not a difficult truth to live with; Three is a stunner.
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