With their second comeback, All Saints have grown up. It's a welcome return with a touch of pop class.
Sometimes a pop song rides the wave, seizes the zeitgeist and carries an unstoppable momentum towards its place in posterity. Such was “Pure Shores”, All Saints’ turn of the millennium single, a surge of pristine pop borne on accelerating waves of crystalline vocals and William Orbit-helmed subtle electronica and buoyed by a lyric promising a bright future.
However, the bright future never quite arrived for the London-based girl group. “Pure Shores” was the pinnacle of the rather underwhelming second album, Saints and Sinners, that followed. Saints and Sinners lacked the freshness and zest of their eponymous debut. All Saints were no longer the cool younger sisters of the Spice Girls but suddenly sounded stale and outmoded. It was no surprise, then, that they split -- of all things, over a squabble at a photo-shoot about who should wear a certain jacket -- only a year later in 2001.
An attempt at a comeback, in the shape of the 2006 album Studio 1, wasn't quite an embarrassment. That said, much of it sounded empty and directionless and, worst of all, the girls appeared to have lost the harmonic blend that was at times flawless, and had been a key factor in them becoming the second best-selling British all-female bad of all time (behind you know who). Perhaps they were simply trying too hard to be musically fashionable rather than relaxing into what suits them best.
So onward to 2016 and a second return, with Red Flag. From the opening bars of lead-out track and first single, “One Strike”, it's clear that this time things are different. “One Strike” is sonically a stormer up there with “Pure Shores’” class: a record of rhythmic ebb and flow, a clattering percussive backdrop, and the trademark All Saints four-part harmonies washing over you like a warm sea. There’s also a lyrical depth not seen since their youthful heyday of 20 years ago. Apparently based on the phone call that Liam Gallagher (yes, that Gallagher) made to dump his then-wife Natalie Appleton, Shaznay Lewis’s words capture both lingering bitterness (“Listen to you load that gun / I’m waiting for the storm to come") and an affirmative renewal.
Lewis writes all the songs (as she invariably did on all past All Saints records) and a sense of maturity and wisdom gained from life experience permeates several of the tracks, notably “This Is A War”, not the only lyric written in the past sense. The 2016 version of All Saints has grown up in a way that was probably impossible for them to manage ten years ago.
There is also a welcome willingness to maneuver, within acceptable limits, between differing musical styles - a trick that the samey Saints and Sinners and Studio 1 could not accomplish. Witness the wistful “Who Hurt Who”, built around a sombre piano, understated strings and breathy vocal (sung by Melanie Blatt, it's her sole writing contribution and it's a fine one).
The second part of the album is weaker, lapsing into the urban/R&B-influenced anonymity to which the band has often been prone, with the odd clunker like the gimmicky “Ratchet Behaviour” whose vocal filter treatment rather betrays (not for the only occasion) All Saints’ noughties heritage. The swoon and harmonic drench of “Tribal” thankfully redeems things later on.
As a grown-up pop record, Red Flag is an impressive accomplishment. It is also a sweet reminder that a fusion of complementary harmonies (think Everlys, Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas) can conjure an esoteric kind of pop magic. All Saints might never rise to that exalted company, but there are more than enough reminders on this record that, when they are on, they can still create a sound which few if any of their peers can match. As John Sebastian sang four decades ago: “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back…”