No ‘Tears,’ No Tragedy: The Unlikely Return of STEPS (Review)
“I could choose to keep on loving a ghost or make new memories instead.”
It was a simpler time: Alcazar. Infernal. Cascada. September. The Sisters Minogue. The early-to-mid 2000s provided a seemingly endless array of thumping Euro-pop floor-fillers.
Leave it to STEPS to step(s) back in time like nothing’s changed.
Tears on the Dancefloor — beyond just being a fantastic collection of nostalgia-inducing stompers, which it is, or a shining beacon of mirror ball light in a same-sounding sea of Xanax-pop, which it is — achieves an all-but-impossible feat: the campy fivesome responsible for “5,6,7,8,” “Tragedy” and “Stomp,” now in their forties, should not be able to return twenty years after their 1997 debut with a reunion record that stands as their best work yet — much less one of the best pop albums of 2017.
And yet, they absolutely have.
As album contributor Darren Hayes rightly called it weeks ago, Tears is STEPS’ own version of Madonna‘s Confessions on the Dance Floor: a start-to-finish serving of pristinely crafted, unapologetically up dance music. Granted, the songs are not quite as mystical or ‘ironic’ as Her Madgesty’s 2005 masterpiece, but the mission statement is the same: it’s a love letter to fans, and a reminder of who they were…and very much still are.
If “Scared of the Dark,” which defied the odds and saved pop in 2017, wasn’t enough of a red — err, rainbow flag in advance, Tears is one gay, gay, G-A-Y record. Even for the flamiest of their flamboyant adherents (sorry, and the #masc4sames), one spin alone of Tears leads to ascension to a level of homosexuality previously unimagined.
Staying true to their penchant for campy covers, the group goes hard for the pink pound, channeling Light Years-era Disco Kylie on cuts like “Firefly,” covering ABBA‘s legendary Benny Andersson for their Eurovision-worthy “Story of a Heart” — and even an earnest, wailing cover of Lara Fabian‘s “I Will Love Again” beamed in straight (well, not so straight) from the year 2000. And, dear Queer God, “Glitter & Gold”! The four-to-the-floor stomper is a shimmering sad disco standout. Tack on two poppers o’clock mixes of “Scared of the Dark” and “Story of a Heart,” and this album is an essential circuit party companion.
Vocally, the album is all about the ladies of the troupe; Claire specifically, who carries the bulk of the songs with her theatrical, hair-on-neck-raising delivery that pierces through the pulsating production. A true disco diva, she is.
Faye holds her own too, but make no mistake, it’s our Lady of “Lately,” Lisa Fucking Scott-Lee, who steals the show with her standout verses. Simply hearing the Now or Never one time music industry-quitting icon back in action again is a treat that we simply don’t deserve.
H and Lee are almost nowhere to be found, which is…not too devastating. The boys appear most on “Space Between Us,” which sounds like a B-side from Cher’s Living Proof, and plays best if you imagine the “Song For the Lonely” diva herself throatily crooning alongside the STEPS ladies.
There’s a wistfulness to the record that feels appropriate for a group that’s (allegedly) past their prime. Some songs might read as break-up anthems or odes to former flames on the surface, but for a group with a now-infamous break-up story at the heart of their legacy, the lyrics often double as group therapy: “We used to be happy,” they croon on the brilliant “Happy,” co-crafted with Ina Wroldsen and Steve Mac.
“Neon Blue” is perhaps the most representative of STEPS, as they are now, in 2017. It’s the teen-pop troupe’s grown-up manifesto, optimistically charging into the future and celebrating themselves — undoubtedly the stuff of a joyous finale for their forthcoming Party on the Dancefloor Tour.
“All we need is me and you in neon blue!”
The Alias, executive producers of the LP, and every other soul involved behind-the-scenes, from the A&R to the songwriters to the management, deserve an OBE: from those early Instagram teasers to spot-on live performances to surprise DJing a We Love Pop night, the group nailed the Tears campaign in every single aspect possible.
From its triumph of a lead single to anthemic, string-laden title track “No More Tears on the Dancefloor,” Tears boldly bolts back to the future, supplying a heavy dose of memories of the not-so-distant yesteryear, bolstered by crisp production. No bandwagon-hopping, no moody midtempos, no beat-dropping too-cool-for-a-chorus trop-pop: this is pure, euphoric dance-pop at its very best and brightest, at a particularly grim time when a little escapism, and some familiar feelings, are a welcome distraction from the tension and heartbreak happening in the world.
Some things are better best forgotten, but STEPS took a chance on a happy ending anyway — and won.