This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the best and most consistent solo Spice Girl album to date: Emma Bunton‘s Free Me.
While it’s safe to say none of Ginger, Sporty, Scary, Baby or Posh’s albums will ever alter the course of music history like that of their collective endeavours, there is still something special about Emma’s second album that keeps me coming back.
Free Me arrived just a few sleeps before Valentine’s Day in 2004 but love wasn’t particularly in the air for solo Spice Girls records anymore.
All five have been dropped by Virgin despite Melanie C, Geri and even Emma herself, yielding massive hit singles just a few years ago. Nobody was in the mood for the Spice Girls and while they were still frequent tabloid fodder, Emma was probably the least talked about of the bunch.
Baby’s first solo album A Girl Like Me (2001) was bolstered by the #1 hit ‘What Took You So Long?‘ but apart from that, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about her post-Spice foray to warrant any level of anticipation for a second album.
A Girl Like Me was a bland-as-bog roll clutch of songs with vanilla R&B and strumming guitar-pop persuasions. While we all watched the CDs get dumped into bargain bins, Bunton signed with ex-Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller and worked hard on a follow up.
She caught us all off guard when she sexed up her image and honed in on a corner of the genre that hadn’t been explored very much by a young mainstream popstar.
Free Me was a modern day reimagination of Motown, Latin pop and the exuberance of 60s flower power chic. The music suited Emma’s camomile voice to a tee and presented her as more of a sexy and sophisticated songbird than the feisty girl in pigtails we saw plastered on billboards, TV and magazines in the 90s.
The title track ‘Free Me‘ was an alluring down-tempo, which critics at the time likened to a James Bond tune. And then you saw Emma revealing her tanned and toned new figure in the video and it was all kinds of double-‘O’-hell-yeah.
The public didn’t baulk that the idea of Baby growing up because it was done tastefully. The dewy lyrics she cooed, “Now free me. Let me loose to love you. Yeah, how I long to seduce you…” might be forward but it’s not like sex appeal was never part of the Spice Girls’ package.
As enthralling as it was to see Baby make her comeback as a sensual grown woman, ‘Free Me’ had nothing on its successor ‘Maybe’, a ridiculously catchy homage to 60s pop romp with a jubilant melody. It sounded like nothing on the charts then and nothing on the charts since. Needless to say, the flamboyant little number was one Emma had in the bag especially for her gay fans. It’s hard to think of another Emma Bunton tune that is more loved and underrated than ‘Maybe’.
Bunton co-wrote every track on the album (except the cover ‘Crickets Sing for Anamaria‘) with pure pop writers and producers of the time, primarily Yak Body (who had worked with S Club 7) and Mike Peden (Lighthouse Family and Will Young). Yet the result didn’t sound like a direct transference of anything from their previous work. It was an enjoyable reflection of the music Emma grew up with and wanted to bottle for a new generation.
Simon Ellis, who co-wrote and produced S Club 7‘s fluorescent disco hit ‘Don’t Stop Movin’‘, did ‘No Sign of Life’, a dramatic ballad with sweeping strings and mournful horns. Emma despairs, “I wake up crying and I think of you / There’s something dying and my world lies broken in two / A voice says get out of bed / But instead I lay back and go out of my head”.
While this was undoubtedly a grown up pop album, there were still plenty of glitter and spice in the mix. Where Melanie C had tried to convey depth and maturity in the company of soft rock on her sophomore Reason, Emma took a more balanced approach. Free Me projected a confident woman in her late 20s, who had seen the different facets of romance but still had a little wink and nudge in her.
Songs like ‘Lay Your Love On Me’ hears Emma on the prowl, singing “Show me your breathless kiss! Baby nobody else gets to woo me like this. Stay ’til the morning! Love’s an emotion, brings a girl to her knees… Nothing’s as sexy as the power of the birds and bees!”.
Free Me was a body of work that somehow touched base with Spice Girls fans who were quickly advancing out of their teens and moving towards harder-edged mainstream acts like Eminem, Linkin Park, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.
It wasn’t a long embrace because this album didn’t fit in with the cool sound of the time. Free Me worked because it stayed true to the essence of Emma and remained close enough to the pop palette that coloured the first two Spice Girls albums.
Free Me is still the only solo Spice record to have all its singles land in the UK Top 10. We’re not sure it would have taken flight at all if Emma had ignored her roots, run with the crowd and latched onto whatever the dominant sound of the time was, like Victoria Beckham with her dabble in R&B and hip hop. At the same time, we can’t imagine Emma repeating the same formula and maintaining her hit run while every solo Spice record continues to be denigrated by the press.
As the years go by, it becomes increasingly apparent that Free Me was always destined to be a one-off. A gem that no one expected from a Spice Girl and a gem that showed up just when there was still enough mainstream interest in a solo Spice record to warrant all the attention it rightfully deserved.