One Touch Of Love: 20 Years Of Sugababes' Debut Album

One Touch Of Love: 20 Years Of Sugababes' Debut Album

Perhaps the most definitive opening statement of any British girl group...

In 2000, three young British women, Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchnanan and Siobhán Donaghy, all aged 15-16, released a R&B and pop album called 'One Touch'. It was the start of a particularly intense affair in British pop history called Sugababes.

But outside of all the fanfare and furore that the group would go on to garner, 'One Touch' has survived as a peculiar artefact within the British music industry; within the girl group construct; and the storied history of Sugababes themselves. As it marks its 20th anniversary, its tightly coiled emotional poignancy and open-ended promise remain as alluring as ever.

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'One Touch' opens with 'Overload', perhaps the most definitive opening statement of any British girl group, give or take a 'Wannabe'. Its refrains of teenage preciousness - "Strange fear I ain't felt for years/The boy's coming and I'm close to tears" - are paired, counter-intuitively, with a forthright bassline, reverberating clatter, random whooshes and later, surf guitars. It is impossibly groovy but held together with some diffident insouciance; an unbothered ditty crooned by teenage girls filing their nails.

This was very much the template for the Sugababes’ entry onto the music scene; a bunch of teenage girls somehow above it all. Live performances of 'Overload' had the three girls half-heartedly performing a routine on barstools, only magnifying this effect. To a market saturated with bright-eyed and eagerly performed pop, it must have been some hook.

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From there, the album takes an assured dive into romantic fixation, heartbreak, self- assurance and despair; and pairs it up with perfect technical accompaniment. The production - lowkey, unfussed and often inspired R&B-lite stylings that still land squarely, and gently, within pop - may not seem particularly audacious, but is perfectly judged in terms of creating a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. This is largely the handiwork of producer Cameron McVey, of Massive Attack, Portishead and Neneh Cherry fame.

Vocally, it is even more accomplished. The murmured quietness that forms the ambiance of the album frequently breaks out into flourishes from all three vocalists. The fact that they were teenagers is a fault only in comparison to the vocal heights all three themselves would go on to scale. Buena, as one of the voices of her generation; Buchanan, as the rich, honeyed gel to multiple incarnations of Sugababes; and Donaghy, as a crystalline bell jar on her own.

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But on this first, lone outing, there is a certain magic when those voices come together, with quiet intimacy and nervous chemistry, particularly in their seamless harmonies - gorgeous and stirring one second, and wispily fluttering away in the background the next.

These technical aspects are perfect complement to the album’s high point which is its lyrical substance. The three members co-wrote most of the songs here, and their ruminations on growing up and finding your way through love and life here, despite the markers of adolescence attached to them, seem universal in many ways.

The jittery nervousness of approaching a new crush ('Overload'); the confident reproach of an uncommitted lover ('One Foot In'); and the bold excitement of revelling in a new love (the title track) are, after all, hardly limited to teenagehood. In the best of girl group tradition, most of the album reads like hanging out with a close friend, full of confessions and building up esteem.

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But what pushes it over beyond any idea that this is child’s play is the album’s final quarter, where the album takes a noticeable turn for the darker. 'New Year' diagnoses, eulogises and sheds tears over a broken, traumatising relationship. 'Promises' pleads moving on from un-kept promises with a wistful, self-pitying weariness. And in the album closer 'Run For Cover', all the bleak facets of despair are rendered with chilling accuracy and drama. The lyrics, suggestive of things graver than mere heartbreak - at one point screaming in anguish, “You never seem to wonder/How much you make me suffer” - belie the youth of its singers, and underscore the record’s maturity.

These emotional heights are rarely scaled by pop acts, let alone by ones so young - evidenced even by a casual glance at girl group debut albums of the past two decades. That explains in large part its vitality. Young women just aren’t meant to express feeling this much.

The ructions of Sugababes - Donaghy leaving immediately, Buena after three further albums, and finally Buchanan being booted, too, seven albums down the line - would unwittingly feed a projection of what the three together could have been like.

This was especially the case because group’s sound, and fame, changed distinctly following 'One Touch', along harder R&B and underground pop lines (signalled by the back-to-back ruptures of 'Freak Like Me' and 'Round Round' from succeeding album 'Angels With Dirty Faces'); and later into glossier, more straightforward pop (seen, for instance, with 2005’s 'Push The Button' and 2007’s 'About You Now'). 'One Touch' then is an anomaly within the group’s discography, as much as it was within the music industry.

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When the reunion of the ‘originals’ did finally came, some 13 years later in 2013, it was as short-lived and tantalising as the début itself; the newly styled Mutya Keisha Siobhan fading into obscurity with just one single to their names, despite fulfilling the promise of decades with almost unparalleled vocal prowess.

But regardless of the painstaking calculations of what could have been, 'One Touch' is a singular reminder of unadulterated talent and the creation of music which can stand the weight of time. Which can say, simply, that the world three young girls beheld was important enough. And beautifully so.

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Words: Pasan Jayasinghe / @pasanghe

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