Saturday Flashback: U2 & Mary J. Blige – One

“Are you on glue?”

Tim: I know it’s not Christmassy, but there’s something that needs clearing up. On Wednesday you made a claim that the Johnny Cash version of this song is “now the definitive version of the song”, to which my only response is: are you on glue?

Tom: Harsh. Admittedly that’s arguably much more true for “Hurt” than it is for “One” — because Nine Inch Nails were never what you could call a truly mainstream act, and Trent Renzor literally said “that song isn’t mine any more”. But I don’t think it’s a statement than can be dismissed automatically.

Tim: Even if you want to claim that it’s more notable than U2’s original version (which is laughable enough in itself), had you forgotten this?

Tim: Now, if you’ve recently developed a love for country music without telling me, that’s fine, you’re allowed to prefer an album track off a covers album.

Tom: Hold on hold on hold on. We’re both coming at this from very different angles. American III isn’t just “a covers album”, it’s one of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series.

Tim: Hmm, maybe fair – but firstly, it still wasn’t released as a single, unlike a few others, and secondly (and more relevantly): you’re letting your emotions in here. Sure, it’s important to you, but please, don’t try to claim that it’s more notable or more definitive than either the original or this, which truly is an incredible collaboration. Figures alone show that much: this charted higher around the world (in the UK, for example, it was kept off the top spot only by Crazy by Gnarls Barkley), sold better, got a standing ovation when it was initially performed at U2’s New York gig. But you don’t need figures to show why it’s the case: it keeps Bono’s great initial vocals and adds on Mary J. Blige’s outstanding ones, with a phenomenal level of emotion. They work together and sound flawless.

Tom: I have, as far as I can recall, never heard this version of One. Ever. That is, no doubt, just as surprising to you as your dismissal of American IV is to me. And because I’m used to the other versions, I just don’t agree with you. I agree that the vocals are brilliant, but I think this is too… well, it’s too “pop music”, everything’s turned up too much, you’ve got that godawful thing where a studio single tries to sound like a live performance, with bits of what should be on-stage improv baked into the track.

Like Adam Lambert’s cover of Believe, U2’s “One” is an excellent track to perform on stage. Cash’s version is a better studio single.

Tim: Hmm, I’m still really not persuaded. But again, check the figures: if we’ve a definitive version of a song, it’s the one most people, if not everybody, thinks of when they think of the song. And hell, I’m not arguing that about this one. I’m just saying it absolutely isn’t Johnny Cash’s one. There’s just no competition. None at all.

Tom: So I did go and check the figures, and you’re right there: the order, in terms of Spotify’s slightly-rickety popularity ranking, goes U2’s original, then Cash, then this version. So, yes, I’ll grant you: Cash’s “One” is not the definitive version. But I don’t think U2’s is either.

Tim: And that’s okay.

Adam Lambert – Believe

“Who’d dare to cover Believe?”

Tom: Every time we talk about a song with a name like this, the same as an absolutely iconic track, I get a bit grumpy. Why would you release a song with the same name like that? Unless it’s actually a cover. And who’d dare to cover Believe?

Tom: Oh. He would. And really well.

Tim: Well, yeah, kind of. I mean, it’s hardly the honest to God banger that the original was, is it?

Tom: Okay, a bit of backstory: he performed this live at the Kennedy Center Honours a year ago, and brought Cher to tears. She later posted a tweet in her usual style about it.

Tim: Amazing.

Tom: Here’s what I reckon: Cher’s original is a better studio version.

Tim: Obviously.

Tom: This isn’t a Johnny Cash situation, where the new cover version is now the definitive version of the song. (Twice.) And honestly, I don’t think this needs to be a studio single: I think that live performance stands well on its own.

Tim: Okay, we’ll come back to that Johnny Cash claim in a bit, because…yeah, later. As for this, sure, that’s a good performance, if you like that sort of thing. I think I’m just too pro-banger to really get this. Just leaves me a bit ehh.

Tom: That said, without the single, I wouldn’t have heard the live version.

Harry Styles – Adore You

“I’d like to present a new (and very strong) contender for Most Bizarre Video.”

Tim: We’re getting to the end of the decade and there’s a number of chart things going around; I’d like to present a new (and very strong) contender for Most Bizarre Video.

Tom: I only know of this because of the disappointed nerd outcry when a brand new exciting alternate reality game turned out to be… an ad for a Harry Styles song.

Tim: Ha, I’d completely missed that – though the December 2nd update made me laugh a lot reading it. ANYWAY, there’s a lot of pre-amble, but summary: the village doesn’t like Harry, he’s basically decided to leave, then he found a fish that has been similarly exiled. And then…

Tim: …he puts it in a cafetière, nicks a rucksack when it outgrows that, spies on a beardy guy, buys a massive fish tank which the fish then explodes out of because it is horrified by the fish market, which is somehow the part of the video that makes most sense.

Tom: Mm. Yes, I can see why the folks hopeful for an ARG were disappointed.

Tim: As for the song – it’s alright. It helps that it’s a strong chorus, because there’s basically nothing else to it, and I guess if you don’t like that main hook then you’ve probably not got much love for the song as a whole.

Tom: It’s not bad. It’s a perfectly servicable song. And I’ll admit I can at least sing some of the chorus after listening once. Well, one line of it, anyway.

Tim: On the other hand, is this whole thing really about the song? Or is it just a long-winded way of telling us he’s binned off girls and is going for fish now?

Jessie J – One More Try

“You say ridiculous, I say IT’S AMAZING and HOW HAS THIS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.”

Tom: “& Juliet” is a Max Martin jukebox musical. Yes, that’s ridiculous, but that’s apparently the point that the West End has reached now.

Tim: Hmm, you say ridiculous, I say IT’S AMAZING and HOW HAS THIS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.

Tom: It is essentially the Max Martin Greatest Hits, and as with any greatest hits album, they’ve added one brand new song onto it that no-one asked for.

Tom: But of course, it’s Max Martin, so that one new song is actually pretty good.

Tim: Was there ever any doubt?

Tom: I don’t think it’s a classic, and I don’t think it’s going to be troubling the charts too much, but as a perfect demonstrate of The Genre, it’s not bad.

Tim: True. It’s definitely a show number, though – the build through the verses and choruses would be much more accelerated if it were to be released as a regular pop song. Perfectly good track for a musical, though.

Tom: Every trick’s there: the emotional piano, the harmonies in the final chorus. It’s almost a self-parody. Almost.

Naughty Boy x Mike Posner – Live Before I Die

“I don’t think there’s been a better story than Mike Posner.”

Tom: Over the years we’ve been writing this, Tim, I don’t think there’s been a better story than Mike Posner. When we first talked about him — on “Cooler Than Me” nearly nine years ago — I summed him up with three words: “what a dick“. In 2011, I called him “Chinstrap McPoser“.

Then he disappeared for a while, and came back with “I Took A Pill In Ibiza“, which we missed — but which certainly put him in a different light.

Tim: And we never did discover whether Avicii thought he was cool, did we?

Tom: And now: well.

Tim: Oh, wow.

Tom: The story’s as important as the music, there. Don’t get me wrong, the music’s also good: but the story’s better.

Tim: Yes, yes it is.

Westlife – Without You

“At some point, we should probably stop covering every Westlife single.”

Tom: At some point, we should probably stop covering every Westlife single.

Tim: Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s nice that someone’s doing it.

Tom: Well, this is not that point. Particularly as the album came out on Friday.

Tom: I had the usual ‘modern Westlife track’ reaction to this: got distracted and forgot it was playing during the first verse, then perked up at the chorus. And then — which is a departure from normal — actually started listening properly at the second bit of the chorus.

Tim: See, I was deliberately paying attention, but still had the same “ooh!” reaction to the chorus coming, when the first cymbal hit.

Tom: I’m sure I’ve heard that piano counterpoint melody in the chorus somewhere before — between that and the guitar behind the middle eight, it really sounds like they’ve taken some style tips from Coldplay. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Tim: No, no even slightly. I wouldn’t say no to a key change, mind, but aside from that this is fine. 

Tom: Frankly, this sounds like a big emotional number from a soundtrack, and I think it’s probably the best one off the album.

Pet Shop Boys – Burning the heather

“As heather and grass plants become older, they become less palatable and less nutritious. The process of burning small areas removes the older growth and allows the plants to regenerate after the burn.”

Tom: You know it’s going to be a Deep, Artistic Album when bands start playing about with the capitalisation of their tracks.

Tim: Very true, and for the agriculturally challenged amongst us, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust provides a lengthy explainer. Key sentences: “As heather and grass plants become older, they become less palatable and less nutritious. The process of burning small areas removes the older growth and allows the plants to regenerate after the burn.” Now you know that, here’s the new Pet Shop Boys track.

Tim: Now, I don’t want to be accused of taking anything to seriously or anything, but according to that link heather burning typically happens October to April, with the vast majority of it happening in the spring – any earlier, you see, and the ground is dry and it’s harder to control, so the line ‘autumn is here and they’re burning the heather’ is, well, if not entirely incorrect then certainly dubitable, with its implication that we’re round about late August, early September. I just find it difficult to take seriously, really. Though, seriously, what are those lyrics about?

Tom: I’m not entirely sure, and that “hell for leather” lyric lands like a brick through a window. I’ve said here before that Tennant and Lowe are much better producers and remixers than they are pop songwriters. I don’t mean that as an insult: they’ve written some absolute bangers: It’s A Sin, Left To My Own Devices, New York City Boy, Rent, and, yes, more. Those are all good songs. They have a heck of a Greatest Hits album.

But the big, breakthrough, mainstream, radio-play pop hits, the ones they end the concerts with, are covers: Always On My Mind and Go West.

Tim: Huh, I’d never thought of that before, but you’re right. I’d also add The Pop Kids to that list, though.

Tom: So new Pet Shop Boys music needs to be seen in that light: it’s probably not going to be a Big Radio Smash Hit. But it is probably going to be a good song.

Tim: Fair, and it’s worth noting the music’s not bad. Certainly wasn’t what I expected to hear when I pressed play, mind, but then as soon as Neil’s vocals came along I was very “ah, yep there it is” and it sounded okay.

Tom: Yep. Once you manage your expectations of both music and instruments, this is a decent Pet Shop Boys track.

Tim: Dragged on a bit, though. A little bit.

HRVY – Million Ways

“The lyric video.”

Tom: We talked yesterday about how terrible lyrics can ruin a song. In this case, it’s not necessarily the lyrics: it’s specifically the lyric video.

Tom: Repeating half of the syllables of a word is an old trick, and there’s nothing actually wrong with it. But somehow, seeing “milli” it written out like that, with emoji flying by because some designer thought “sure, that’s what kids like, that’ll do”? It highlights what is, when I think about it, actually a pretty bad bit of songwriting: there has to be a better, more clever way of fitting that sentiment into that rhythm, and they didn’t.

Tim: Hmm, I don’t know – I don’t really have a problem with that. Sure, it’s not the best lyrical format, not by a long way, but it is standard enough that it doesn’t annoy me. What does get me (and probably wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t pointed out there was something annoying for me to find, so thanks) is the “I’m a call ya”. Now, I don’t know how that’s meant to be spelt – to be honest, I’m not sure there is an official spelling, but I’m almost certain it’s definitely not as two words implying that HRVY is himself an actual verb.

Tom: I mean, the rest of the song’s good enough, the kids’ll probably like it anyway.

Tim: Hell, I even quite like it, which isn’t something I ever thought I’d say about a HRVY song. Still a stupid name, mind. 

Niall Horan – Nice To Meet Ya

“Solid Middle Of The Road Adult Man Serious Artist Who Attracts Women”

Tom: We’re about a month late to this one — enough to flag it up, not quite enough to make it a Flashback, particularly as it’s the lead single off the still-upcoming second album.

Tim: Good, let’s do it. Care to provide an intro?

Tom: Ladies and gentlemen (but, from the marketing, mostly ladies): please welcome Olly Murs Junior. Or possibly Jeremy Renner Junior, depending on whether you go by sound or look. This is someone whose publicist is emphasising: Solid Middle Of The Road Adult Man Serious Artist Who Attracts Women.

Tom: First of all, full marks to the video director for keeping that eyeline in at 2:48.

Tim: Good video throughout, really.

Tom: But aside from that: who’s this song aimed at? The old teenage 1D fans, moving to a sound that’s more mature? Their mums? The people that downloaded the Jeremy Renner app? Or — and I suspect this is a well-paying demographic — people looking for soundtracks to expensive commercials?

Tim: My guess is the first one (and, sure, the last one) – artists have varied their sounds throughout their career way back to the dawn of time, it’s up to the fans to keep up with it, and ideally the radio stations to keep playing it, which, yep, seems to be happening.

Tom: I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is, literally, easy listening. It also just seems an odd choice, given that he’s in his mid-twenties and not his mid-forties.

Sigrid – Home To You

“There’s a harp.”

Tom: There I was, thinking there was no interesting music to send you: and then I realise we’ve missed Sigrid’s new track. A quick warning: it’s not what you’d expect. There’s a harp.

Tim: Hmm, gosh.

Tom: Once you adjust to the fact that Sigrid — not exactly known for writing love songs — has done a full, proper ballad: well, this is good, isn’t it? There are very few vocalists who have a recognisable vocal quality that lifts them up above session singers. This is both surprisingly traditional and still recognisably Sigrid.

Tim: Can’t disagree with a word of that. I prefer her usual stuff – certainly can’t say I’d like an album of this – but yeah, it’s good ballad.

Tom: Now, I reckon a couple of lines of that beautiful, soaring chorus do owe at least a tip of the hat to the chorus of Lionel Richie’s Hello, but that’s by the by. I still hit ‘play’ a second time.

Tim: Blimey, high praise from you there. And yeah, deserved.