Happy 10th Anniversary to Emma Bunton’s Life in Mono, released December 4, 2006.
Note: This is the debut Albumism feature by Quentin Harrison, author of ‘Record Redux: Spice Girls,’ the definitive critical guide to the music of the Spice Girls.
The road to Emma Bunton's third solo offering had been an unconventional one, much like her incredible career as a recording artist up to that point. Bunton was one-fifth of the Spice Girls, arguably the most seminal girl group in recent memory. From 1996 to 2000, across three studio albums, the Spice Girls unleashed a swath of hits across the globe. At home in the United Kingdom, the Spice Girls achieved a record breaking nine number one singles.
Bunton's first solo step-out had taken place during that hectic period in 1999. Supplying her sweet, but sturdy vocals to the dance-rock production duo Tin Tin Out's ambitious cover of the Edie Brickell & New Bohemians chestnut “What I Am,” Bunton scored her first gold selling single. Two years later, her congenial debut LP A Girl Like Me―buoyed by her first solo number one “What Took You So Long?”―appeared in April of 2001.
Three years separated A Girl Like Me from her sophomore long player Free Me (2004). While Bunton's flirtation with Motown peered back to the Spice Girls’ 1998 single “Stop,” no one expected the revivalist coup of Free Me with its sassy bossa nova and aforementioned Motown inspired sonics. Free Me not only made commercial waves, it began a thaw toward the critical chill that had haunted the Spice Girls as a group and individually. The album also combated the growing “Spice fatigue” in the United Kingdom; their biggest marketplace had grown weary of the ubiquitous nature of the Spice Girls' output, despite its quality, by 2004.
It was against this backstory that Life in Mono (2006) began to take shape more than a decade ago. Bunton, a songwriter in her own right, was aware that she couldn't just repeat the same formula for Free Me on Life in Mono. However, she wasn't quite finished with her vintage pop aspirations just yet.
Bunton paired herself with several co-writers and producers familiar and new―Yak Bondy, Gary Clark, Cathy Dennis, Simon Franglen, Greg Kurstin, and Hannah Robinson―to expand her sound palette with more aural colors. Excusing a delicious interpolation of the Herb Alpert jam “Green Peppers” in the swinging spy pop of “Take Me to Another Town,” Bunton lightened her Latin flavors to shift into a broader adult contemporary space. Said space looked to cues from The 5th Dimension, Dusty Springfield, and early Carpenters for inspiration.
Bunton brought this wider retro AC arc to Life in Mono in many different ways. There was the plaintive piano balladry of “All I Need to Know,” the orchestral pop (with genteel synth underpinnings) of “Mischievous” and “I Wasn't Looking (When I Found Love),” the punchy jazz of “Undressing You,” with its pockets of brass and smoky vocalizing, evinced that this record was layered with consistent charms.
As engrossing as the original material was, Bunton's interpretive flair shone brightly too. As stated, Bunton's first foray into her solo career began with a cover and Life in Mono held no less than five covers out of the album’s 14 tracks. “Downtown” (Petula Clark), “Something Tells Me (Something's Going to Happen)” (Cilla Black), “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (Doris Day), and “Por Favor” (Vic Damone) positioned Bunton alongside fellow Britons Swing Out Sister in legitimately channeling a bygone era in popular music.
The title track however was a clever curiosity. The song had been originally rendered by the alternative-pop outfit Mono for the soundtrack for the 1998 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow). Bunton resurrected the anachronistic French cinema sound of “Life in Mono” as the centerpiece of her album. Her recasting of the song demonstrated that Life in Mono was a logical progression from the seductive nostalgia of Free Me to a genuine fusion of modern adult contemporary pop with throwback accents.
In tandem with the promotional push for Life in Mono, Bunton guested as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, the original British version of the popular American facsimile Dancing with the Stars. As Bunton danced her way into the hearts of millions of British viewers, and semi-finalist status, the lead single from Life in Mono (“Downtown”) became a UK Top 5 hit (#3). Released on November 20, 2006, “Downtown” was an apt taster for the mature pop Bunton offered the third time around. It also didn't hurt that the single had been earmarked as the “Children in Need” charity single for that year.
Life in Mono debuted to the British public on December 4, 2006 and was met with strong critical praise. Yet, even with its positive reception, additional promotion from Bunton's stint on Strictly Come Dancing, and a hit lead-off single, Life in Mono underperformed on the UK Official Albums Chart (#65). The previously discussed “Spice fatigue” had claimed another victim, and the LP was unable to beat back commercial indifference to a Spice-related project. It was a blow to Bunton to be sure, as it was her strongest work to date.
Undaunted, on February 12, 2007, Bunton released the second single from Life in Mono, “All I Need to Know,” but it sadly stalled on the UK Singles Chart (#60). Two events in 2007 put Life in Mono's fortunes to rest prematurely: Bunton's pregnancy and the first Spice Girls reunion. The latter, ironically, managed to wash away the “Spice fatigue” conundrum that halted Life in Mono's chances of more widespread success.
Bunton semi-retired from music when she entered the realm of radio presentation in 2009 as a lead personality on the UK’s Heart FM. In 2012, Bunton returned to music briefly on an understated cover of the Chess musical staple “I Know Him So Well,” a duet with former group mate Melanie C for her sixth solo record Stages (2012). While Bunton has been making headlines this year for an alleged reunion with fellow Spice Girls Melanie Brown and Geri Horner (sans Victoria Beckham and Melanie C), many fans still patiently wait for Bunton to return to her own defunct music career.
Twenty years removed from the first Spice Girls album, the group’s tale hasn't lost its mystique. Life in Mono is one of the many layers within this story that fascinates longtime fans and the curious. An accomplished, artful pop record, Life in Mono has kept the conversation going about Bunton's impressive discography, proof that “quality over quantity” is more than a mere expression, but an artistic vision Bunton realized. Not bad for a former Spice Girl, not bad at all.