Emma Bunton, formerly Baby Spice of the Spice Girls, was a “pop pushover”. That cruel consensus, care of the British music press, was in regard to her affable debut, A Girl Like Me (2001).
Bunton’s pleasant pop was always “too square for the cool, but too cool for the squares”; she’d been cornered, or so it was assumed.
When Bunton issued her first single, from her (then) forthcoming sophomore record, “Free Me” revealed that Bunton’s brand of adult contemporary hadn’t been eschewed. Like any great accessory it set off what was already there: her pop professionalism. Long-term, the Free Me (2004) LP altered the perception of the Spice Girls discography and maintained England’s reputation for pop sophistication.
A Girl Like Me was one of three “Solo Spice” recordings around in 2001―the Spice Girls’ last year of dominance in England. Preceding Geri Halliwell’s busty rendition of “It’s Raining Men,” Bunton’s breezy “What Took You So Long?” bothered the pole position of the British charts for two weeks before Halliwell took up residence there.
The future of its album A Girl Like Me looked bright; exquisitely sung and unpretentiously written, it collected its contents from a wealth of inspirations. One northern soul inspired song, “Better Be Careful,” with its Tamla tambourines peered back to her last retrofit, the Spice Girls single “Stop”.
That Spice Girls entry, like “Better Be Careful,” was a wonderful window into Bunton’s ease at piloting past pop glories. After “What Took You So Long?” its follow-up singles made respectful showings (“Take My Breath Away” U.K. #5, “We’re Not Gonna Sleep Tonight” U.K. #20), but album sales slowed.
Bunton left Virgin Records and joined with Universal / 19 Records; there, the seeds of “Stop” and “Better Be Careful” were to bear good fruit.
Bunton gathered an imaginative crop of writers / producers for her second LP; a few had operated in Spice circles (individually and collectively) previously: Yak Bondy, Mike Peden, Cathy Dennis, Tim Lever, Henry Binns, Pete and Steve Lewinson were a sample of the distinguished cast. Bunton’s own writing prominently featured on the mass of the sessions for what became Free Me.
Care had to be taken as Bunton’s vintage view wasn’t new territory. Cathy Dennis herself had recorded a fantastic fusion of 1990’s alternative rock with a 1960’s harmonic twist on Am I the Kinda Girl (1996).
The competitive force arose in fellow Britons, Swing Out Sister.
Though they hadn’t commercially shaken the U.K. for sometime, Swing Out Sister’s sizable listeners adored their authentic brew of pop and soul whose influences flitted between the 1960’s and 1970’s. Their eighth studio project, Where Our Loves Grows, manifested just a few months behind Free Me. What was a (former) Spice Girl to do? Simple, she’d stamp her own sound onto her epoch revival; through American (Motown), Latin (Brasil ’66) and British (Petula Clark) blueprints, the backdrop of Free Me was sculpted.
Amid the swirling strings and manicured rhythms, Bunton’s “cherry on top” vocals radiated. “Maybe” in its LP and “Latino” versions put hips in motion; the latter cameo’d as an alternate side on the single “Crickets Sing for Anamaria”.
The symphonic swells of the titular piece and the closer, “Something So Beautiful,” were savory to the ears. Lyrically, Bunton portrayed passion and heartbreak on the humidity of “Lay Your Love On Me” and the tears-and-mascara groove of “No Sign of Life”. Maturity was grappled strikingly on “I’ll Be There” and “So Long” (b-side to “I’ll Be There”); here Bunton’s idea of “love” went beyond infatuation. Bunton sang about relationships that required friendship as a foundation and the reality that romance wasn’t enough to maintain a courtship.
Bunton’s interpretive streak arrived on this project too. Starting with a saucy translated take on Marcos Valle’s “Os Grilos” (here as “Crickets Sing for Anamaria”), Bunton’s salsa swung. Additional proof that her pop covers compelled could be heard on the (other) flips to “Crickets”: “Eso Beso” (originally by Paul Anka) and “So Nice (Summer Samba)” (also by Marcos Valle).
There were treats spread throughout the remainder of the album and its other numerable b-sides; Free Me set itself as the summit for Emma Bunton’s transition into womanhood.
“Free Me” debuted on 5/26/03 to an outstanding greeting: U.K. #5. What happened next was no less than a marathon to the actual album release date. Staggering her singles, Bunton shared “Maybe” on 10/13/03. The song caused a stir with its video tribute to the musical-film ‘Sweet Charity’ (1966 /1969).
“Maybe” gifted Bunton with another U.K. Top 10 hit (#6) and as 2004 dawned, her junior offering “I’ll Be There” (1/26/04-U.K. #7) introduced the parent recording.
Free Me was unveiled on 2/9/04 to rapturous reception; it entered the Top 10 of the U.K. Album Chart (#7) and certified gold later in 2004. Free Me became the only “Solo Spice” recording to outsell its foregoing album. Critically, Free Me precipitated the thaw in the iciness shown to Spice-related music for several years at home. The Guardian commented (via their writer Dorian Lynskey) about Bunton’s recharged adult contemporary cunning:
Free Me’s classy retro pop is another smart move. The camp Carnaby Street romp of her last single, “Maybe,” is pure ‘Austin Powers,’ and the rest of the album is a confection of easy listening strings and Spanish guitars. Zero 7’s Henry Binns co-writes the breezy “Breathing” (Bunton is credited on every song). Quiet Spice wins again.
Bunton closed the United Kingdom chapter of Free Me with its fourth single, “Crickets Sing for Anamaria” (5/31/04-U.K. #15). The success of Free Me in Britain heartened Bunton to cast a glance across the ocean, toward America.
Spice mates Melanie C and Geri Halliwell had given a go at penetrating the U.S. market with their first albums to little fanfare. Bunton tried to make the third time a charm with Free Me (1/25/05). The record didn’t chart Stateside. An unnecessary, but tasteful remix of “Free Me” did hit hard on the American dance charts though: U.S. Hot Dance Club Play #4.
Directed By: Harvey & Carolyn
Bunton had worked an album for three years, something increasingly foreign in the decade that came to be known for its dwindling album sales with the rise of digital music.
Two years after Free Me, Bunton recorded the divine Life in Mono (2006). An even stronger update of her throwback pop, it was a surprising sales slump. Life in Mono’s chart collapse was tragic in that the LP deserved a better fate. Bunton semi-retired from singing and moved into radio presenting for Heart London in 2009.
Ten years ago, Emma Bunton made a conscious choice to follow (and improve on) her musical muse. Free Me gave Emma Bunton a chance to reach beyond the Spice Girls audience (without losing them) and touch others with her music.
On the back of the record jacket for Free Me, Bunton stated “If you can believe your eyes and ears”. Anyone that listens to this record won’t just believe, they’ll fall in love with the art they find here. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: Free Me is available physically & digitally; all other Emma Bunton albums are imports. For current information on Emma Bunton, visit her official Twitter page.-QH]