Pop is a neutral island. A safe landscape where, traditionally, women and gay people seek refuge, a place to be free, dancing out the pain away from prying eyes every Saturday night. There within that space the hymn was (and still is) the SAD BANGER. From ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ to ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ – there is true beauty and wisdom to be found in the perfect sad-banger. It’s not just the obvious wounded wailing of raw emotion set to a thumping beat, what makes a truly unforgettable sad-banger is the more subtle manoeuvre, the game between the vulnerability of the lyrics – to expose your darkest hour on record and transform it into something else, something up-lifting. It’s quite a feat to make your most devastating heartbreak hummable, especially one that’s been thrown around the tabloids in the tawdriest fashion.
When Nicole Appleton’s relationship with Liam Gallagher imploded in a predictable sensationalist fashion the last thing anyone expected was a pop life raft to be thrown to her from her ex-band mates. ‘One Strike’ is 2016’s Sad Banger du-jour (and possibly the song of the year already) composed from songwriter Shaznay’s late night phone calls with Nicole. It’s a measured direct hit to the heart, whose womb-like beats and warm percussion feel like the band regrouping as an impenetrable force-field protecting their erstwhile friend. The song is sob-heavy not with anger but instead with those very adult feelings of disappointment and acceptance. As the harmonies strike through the lines ‘silently numb/I’m waiting for the storm to come’ the theme for the album is set – this is a goodbye missive to all that mess but delivered in the classiest way.
Red Flag is All Saints’ redemption, returning ten years after the mixed bag, R n’ B bummer that was Studio 1 it is an opportunity for Ivor Novello winner Shaznay Lewis to flex that muscle that created the twin blueprints of sophsti-pop singles ‘Pure Shores’ and the sublime ‘Black Coffee’. It can be difficult to return and try to reclaim room in the overcrowded, unforgiving pop market place. Many have attempted this trick and dozens have failed due to attempting to mimic the glories of the past with nothing to offer in their present incarnation. All Saints have managed to pull off a second coming because like Take That they understand that their audience tastes have not been frozen in time and adding maturity into the mix may not be the death knell it once was. They now slot into the current pop climate more so than ever with their sound to be heard everywhere from the cool girls Jessie Ware, Katy B and Tove Lo to pop savvy bands like Aluna George, they all have a touch of the Saints admirable nonchalance about them.
Older and definitely wiser the album is akin to them graduating from being girls shopping at Topshop to fully grown women spending serious cash in Cos; it’s full of pop luxury rather than cheap thrills. They sound utterly comfortable in their skins, laying down the law, seeking answers and starting life anew, taking care of their business minus any immature histrionics. Every song is sleekly produced, wrapped in strings and skittish beats like Massive Attack getting champagne drunk with Diplo with only the silly, throwaway ‘Ratchet Behaviour’ interrupting the effortless, smooth flow. Melanie Blatt’s seductive baritone coupled with the Appletons clean tones have never sounded so confident and assured than on songs like the cool control of ‘One Woman Man’. The beguiling title track with its handclap percussion and MIA style backing vocals becomes an instant anthem.
The crucial element of Red Flag’s brilliance is its low-key tone, everything is turned down to a reasonable level, it’s a heartache and pain that is whispered discreetly, tears mingled with red wine stains, the low throb of deep hurt that pulses throughout the working day that has to be gotten through. It’s a polished grown up sound for truly adult problems.
The ache and remorse of relationships dying is fortified by relationships being renewed – previously in their sketchy Met Bar-filled early career All Saints split over an infamous argument about a jacket, now on tracks like the mesmerising ‘Tribal’ and ‘Who Hurt Who’ strong friendships are celebrated. It’s about women reconnecting in times of need, women not girls, there is no room for callow youth on Red Flag, this album is about history, about women who have learned harsh lessons who are surviving, women who are depending on each other on a level that the brats of #squadgoals could never understand. Red Flag is their stake in the ground, their declaration of war on the past and attempting to adapt to a future that is unknown, but one thing is for sure on this island of pop, thankfully, All Saints will not surrender.