When 23-year-old Natasha Bedingfield released her first single in spring 2004, the inevitable comparisons to her older brother surfaced. After all, all Daniel Bedingfield did was make a huge splash on the UK pop charts a couple years earlier with a trio of Number One UK singles, highlighted by the monstrous “Gotta Get Thru This”. Natasha’s debut “Single” peaked at number three, an admirable feat, but it wasn’t until later that August, when “These Words” topped the charts, that people truly began to take notice of the young pop singer/songwriter, as her debut full length Unwritten nabbed the number one slot on the UK album chart. A year later, Natasha Bedingfield is a household name in the UK, and an international sensation, and the time has come for her to try to accomplish something that other UK pop acts like Rachel Stevens, Girls Aloud, and Sugababes have thusfar failed to do: crack the tough, extremely fickle U.S. market. As it happens, in what is turning out to be one of the more pleasant surprises of 2005, American audiences appear to be warming up to her brand of clever, R&B infused pop.
Reworked and remixed for the American crowd, Unwritten has Bedingfield and her producers tweaking the album here and there, changing the album artwork (for the better, if you ask me), omitting a couple tracks from the UK version (the weak, Pink-like “I’m a Bomb” and the eccentric, Nelly Furtado-esque “Frogs and Princes”) in favor of three new songs. As a result, Unwritten Version 2.0, though not without its pitfalls, is a more consistent listen than last year’s model.
Possessing an impressively versatile voice that sounds equal parts Pink and Kelly Clarkson, Bedingfield keeps things relatively controlled throughout the album, never resorting to such histrionics as melodramatic over-singing, a gimmick too many of her American counterparts rely upon, and the more she keeps things simple, the more beguiling the music sounds. “Single” is a surprisingly effective stab at gritty, urban R&B, the murky arrangement and Bedingfield’s winning vocal performance making up for the been-there-done-that “independent woman” theme. “Unwritten”, on the other hand, is downright joyous, buoyed by a lilting acoustic guitar and a sing-along chorus, and not even the pre-diddly-ictable inclusion of a gospel choir can sink the tune. The reworked version of “Drop Me in the Middle” is bolstered by a cameo by UK hip hop star Estelle (she of “1980” fame), and “I Bruise Easily” is a worthy slow-burner, highlighted by Natasha’s soul-baring lyrics (“There’s a mark you leave/Like a love heart carved on a tree”). “Silent Movie”, co-written with former Robbie Williams cohort Guy Chambers, is a real winner, built around a subtle slide guitar riff, and bursting into a piano-driven chorus that would befit Robbo, or even Oasis.
As good as the latest wave of singles from British starlets are, from “Some Girls”, to “Love Machine”, to “Hole in the Head”, none of them exude the kind of charm that “These Words” does. As perfect a pop single as you’ll ever hear, it’s the kind of meta-love song that many songwriters attempt, but few manage to pull off successfully. Bedingfield tackles the love-song-about-a-love-song theme with gusto; backed up by lively hip-hop beats, she sings, “Threw some chords together/ The combination D, E, F,” the aforementioned chords punctuated cleverly by keyboard stabs. Writer’s block kicks in, as she searches for ideas, saying, “Read some Byron, Shelley, and Keats/mRecited it over a hip-hop beat,” conceding facetiously, “I’m having trouble saying what I mean/mWith dead poets and drum machines.” After deciding there’s “no hyperbole to hide behind,” (lovably mispronouncing hyperbole, I might add) she gives up, and simply states the obvious in the swooning chorus: “There’s no better way to say/mI love you, I love you.” Such a combination of self-deprecating humor, sincerity, and irresistible hooks is so rare these days, but Bedingfield does so effortlessly.
As for the newer inclusions to the album, “The One That Got Away” shifts from drab R&B verses to a terrific chorus that smacks of early ’80s electro, while “Stumble”, the one track on the album Bedingfield didn’t co-write, plays it too safely, sticking to the same formula that Michelle Branch and Kelly Clarkson have done before. It’s when she injects her winning personality into the music that Bedingfield succeeds; a song like “If You’re Gonna” gets a bit silly, but when that fun, phony baloney rock chorus kicks in (shades of Lene Nystrom), and when she declares, “I’m lookin’ for a guard dog/ Not buying a Chihuahua,” it’s impossible not to admire the lady’s enthusiasm. We need more pop stars like her.