‘Only Human’: Cheryl Should Probably Start Caring Again (Album Review)
[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t was perhaps all too prophetic that Only Human already sounded like an apology in album title form. “Sorry about this. I’m only human, loves!”
That was just one of the signs, but really, Only Human missed the mark from the very beginning.
Ever since Cheryl Tweedy Cole Fernandez-Versini Cheryl Just Cheryl went solo in the midst of Girls Aloud‘s reign, we have always, at the very least, been dealt objectively exceptional lead singles. Not this time.
We didn’t get the R&B-pop ferocity of “Fight For This Love,” nor the bonkers genius of “Promise This,” and certainly not the club-dominating “Call My Name”…
No, this era kicked off with “Crazy Stupid Love” — a bandwagon-hopping, horn-heavy love-drunk anthem that sounds flat, tuneless and farty; the sonic equivalent of a sad clown holding a deflating balloon, and arguably one of the worst pop singles of the year. Girls Aloud did not die for that mockery of pop music, that’s for sure. (Great video, though!)
You wouldn’t expect Cheryl to drop the ball like that, but then again, there is perhaps no other pop star out there who maintains a greater disconnect between what she should be doing and what she’s actually doing than Cheryl.
Armed with a limited vocal range (generous), Chezza’s greatest strength has always been her on-stage charisma and tightly choreographed, hair flip-heavy live performances. Just watch “Fight For This Love” on X Factor UK — it’s still one of the best X Factor performances of all time.
Somehow, quite cruelly, someone has convinced Cheryl that we needed The Live Cheryl Experience this time around. And so, she’s been ditching the moves and providing us instead with unbelievably unnecessary Only Human stripped-down YouTube sessions for weeks (no one asked for this) — at one point even providing a cover of Beyoncé‘s “Pretty Hurts” and TLC‘s “Unpretty” — highlighting her voice for all the wrong reasons.
Cheryl don’t care, though: She’s of the fucks-free mentality now, and perhaps that is why she’s doing this to us. With her latest #1 UK hit “I Don’t Care” (which just undeservedly stole the crown from Geri Halliwell for most British female #1 singles), Chezza felt free enough to let go of her pop star dancing duties and pull faces on the beach for a few minutes. Cute, but unlike, say, Rihanna, Cheryl just doesn’t do #phuckless particularly well.
She’s swearing up a storm to prove that all her fucks are depleted now, too: “I ran out of fucks to give you baby/Ain’t got the time to spend on you!” she sasses on the hi hat-tinged, finger-snapping “Throwback,” providing a Cher Lloyd-like rap at one point. The lyrics are hysterical, given the singer in question: “Superficial shit don’t mean a thing/I thrown away my diamond ring,” the glamorous X Factor UK diva sings. Okay, Cheryl. Such a blue jeans kind of girl!
She’s also gone from being a pop star to a full-time life coach, catering to her increasingly fanatical Chezza #Soldiers with endless #ItGetsBetter self-empowerment and dream-chasing motivation anthems. From the start, Only Human capitalizes on those themes, as Alan Watts‘ “Forget the Money, Do What You Love” speech booms above a dramatic, space-age soundscape before “Live Life Now” comes in, as Chezza briefly becomes Robyn, speak-singing sentiments borrowed from the Watts speech above a stinging synth pulse. “What do you desire? If money was no object, what would you require?” she monotones. It’s admittedly one of the album’s few, fleetingly fierce moments — even if it’s quite rich coming from one of the world’s most gorgeous millionaires.
And that’s about where the greatness ends as far as uptempo moments are concerned: Sure, “It’s About Time” is an okay, if not entirely dated seize-the-day dance-pop production, and “Stars” is a basic club banger for all the #Soldiers (“We can all be sta-a-ars!“). But really, apart from the amusingly fucks-free “I Don’t Care,” there are no other moments of dance-ready brilliance tucked into the production — certainly nothing on the level of “Sexy Den A Motha.” (Hell, even Messy Little Raindrops had “Yeah Yeah.”)
The closest Cheryl comes to conjuring anything more interesting is the Sia-penned deluxe track “Firecracker,” which revisits the jangling, high-energy guitar pulse of Aloud classic, “Love Machine.” (Hey, remember them? Bet you’re missing the girls now more than ever, huh?)
Speaking of, her Aloud BFF-turned-Cinderella’s Eyes solo songstress Nicola Roberts co-penned a handful of songs on the record, two of which are almost offensively garbage: “Goodbye Means Hello” and “Yellow Love” are utterly unlistenable, from the awful lyrics to the irritating melodies. It is honestly astonishing that two-fifths of the girl group behind “Call The Shots” actually backed these tasteless tunes.
The least offensive moments on the record are slower moments — and when a Cheryl album’s greatest strengths are the ballads, you know there’s an issue.
The Jesse Shatkin-produced “Waiting For Lightning” is a solid, soaring power ballad that actually caters to Chezza’s limited range rather than emphasizing its shortcomings, as is her very on-brand encouragement anthem “Fight On,” which feels a bit tribal…or Lion King-esque, which is not a criticism.
The album’s few forays into sexy, slow-burning R&B are more successful as well, including “All In One Night,” feels like a continuation of A Million Lights‘ “Ghetto Baby,” bringing a little bit of post-Geri departure Spice Girls to mind. And perhaps the most adventurous track of them all is “Coming Up For Air (feat. Joel Compass)” which, impressively enough, carries just the vaguest hint of the creeping, skeletal production of BANKS or FKA Twigs. (But not too much. Let’s not get crazy.)
Of all the half baked servings on Only Human, the greatest triumph might be the Imogen Heap-lite title track itself: With its (intentionally heavy) use of vocoder, Cheryl sounds like an otherworldly angel as she guides us through the darkness into the light. It’s sincere, sparkly and nearly epic-sounding — one of her best ballads to date, by far.
Perhaps a few more of these larger-than-life moments could have saved the record from being a largely mediocre, limp and tragically, well, human affair. Cheryl’s a superstar, after all…the music should follow suit.
‘Only Human’ was released on November 7. (iTunes UK)