Happy 15th Anniversary to Emma Bunton’s second studio album Free Me, originally released February 9, 2004.
Emma Bunton had a reason to celebrate on December 22, 2001.
“We’re Not Gonna Sleep Tonight,” her third single from her solo debut A Girl Like Me (2001) and fourth single overall, had just captured the twentieth position within the U.K. Singles Chart. Not only had its parent album—released just nine months earlier—been certified gold, its two previous singles were respectable hits. Specifically, its initiating charter “What Took You So Long?” went on to top the U.K. Singles Chart for an impressive two-week run.
Still, these achievements weren’t enough to convince an ever-fickle pack of critics that Bunton could “go it alone.” Bunton—like Beckham, Brown, Chisholm and Horner (née Halliwell) before her—was held to the standard of her preceding Spice Girl-related successes when she struck out formally on her own.
Despite this hurdle, Bunton played it customarily cool and got down to the business of brainstorming her sophomore set in early 2002. Virgin Records, Bunton’s label since 1996, showed little interest in the early ideas she presented for her project. Contrary to the roiling trade gossip of the day, Bunton and Virgin amicably separated that same year. However, the singer-songwriter wasn’t without a deal for long. Simon Fuller, a principal ally to the Spice Girls at the start of their career and a person of prominence in the music business prior to his association with them, reached out to Bunton.
Aware of her longstanding work ethic, Fuller proposed a partnership between Bunton and his imprint 19 Records (as distributed via Universal Records). She accepted his proposal with the caveat of the label’s unequivocal support for her second LP, soon to be titled Free Me.
Bunton quickly ensconced herself in the studio with a close-knit group of writers, producers and session musicians that included a few friends and new acquaintances. Some of these colleagues included Cathy Dennis, Tim Lever, Simon Ellis, Nigel Butler, Yak Bondy, Mike Peden and the Lewison brothers, Pete and Steve.
While Bunton did not want for collaborative talent, she wasn’t sitting idly by letting a gaggle of writers and producers piece together her album. Instead, she tasked right beside her partners and featured handsomely on eleven of the twelve songs found on Free Me as a primary writer. The lone exception was “Crickets Sing for Anamaria,” an instrumental chestnut known as “Os Grilos” (The Crickets) originally written and composed by Marcos Valle; Ray Gilbert would later provide English lyrics to the version that was memorably rendered by Astrud Gilberto in 1968.
To those paying attention to the sonic spaces Bunton grazed in as early as the Spice Girls’ charter “Stop”—and as recent as her own antecedent album side “Better Be Careful”—the content of Free Me did not come as a surprise. Rather, it was the depth and scope of that content that roused attention.
Like any proper period piece, Free Me is lushly detailed and proudly displays its influences: Dionne Warwick, Sergio Mendes, The Supremes and Quincy Jones. These heroines and heroes of the “Swinging Sixties” popular music epoch act as Bunton’s aural touchstones and pair well with her own established musical persona.
Bunton mixes Latin (“Lay Your Love on Me”) and expressive jazz-pop (“Tomorrow”) rhythms with Motown (“I’ll Be There”) and adult contemporary (“No Sign of Life”) colors to captivate listeners with each individual composition. Strikingly, all these unique songs manage to cohere into a solid, uniform recording that functions as a whole too.
Vocally, Bunton is an engaging presence throughout Free Me. However, she doesn’t skimp on challenging herself and amid the string and brass grandeur of the title song and the bossa nova pace of “Maybe,” Bunton evinces new facets to the texture and range of her voice. Further, Bunton’s soft and sweet approach partners well with others as the duet “Amazing” showcases with a then-unknown crooner, Luis Fonsi.
Then, there are the superb outtakes (five) leftover from Free Me: “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me Anymore,” “So Long,” “Takin’ It Easy,” “Eso Beso” (This Kiss) and “So Nice (Summer Samba).” This quintet of tracks found themselves assigned to the four singles Free Me would produce. From that batch “Takin’ It Easy” and “Eso Beso”—a Bunton original and a stirring Paul Anka cover—stood out as additional proof of Bunton’s intent to pull the past into the present with this song cycle.
Bunton and 19/Universal began the campaign for Free Me on May 26, 2003 with the reveal of its sumptuous title song as the inaugural single; it swept into the Top 5 of the U.K. Singles Chart. “Maybe” and “I’ll Be There” followed suit in October 2003 and January 2004 respectively. Both entered the Top 10 of the UK. Singles Chart as well.
Free Me arrived in the shops on February 9, 2004 and by the time its final single (“Crickets Sing for Anamaria”) was issued in the spring of that year, Bunton had another gold seller on her hands. She went on to become the only solo Spice Girl to outsell her first record with her second. She extended Free Me’s lifespan by another year when she set it loose stateside in January 2005. This made it the third solo Spice Girl recording behind Horner’s Schizophonic (1999) and Chisholm’s Northern Star (1999) to get an American unveiling.
But, more important than Free Me’s commercial weight were its reviews—nearly all of them superlative. Much in the way that Chisholm’s Northern Star briefly redrew the critical map for the Spice Girls four years beforehand, Free Me did the same. Only this time, Bunton’s long player would have lasting effects on the artistic perception of the Spice Girls canon (individually and collectively) in the decade to come. Like her revivalist predecessors Swing Out Sister before her, Bunton’s Free Me brought the techniques and principles of 1960s pop into a modern context without relinquishing the classicist atmosphere yielded by those elements. Bunton’s vision also could be seen in the execution of the album’s packaging and its music videos.
While there was much more to come from Emma Bunton—musically and otherwise—in the fifteen-year stretch since its arrival, Free Me stands as Bunton’s requisite masterpiece. Put forth in a time when many were obsessed with the contemporaneous mores of hip-hop, electroclash and the like, Bunton’s Free Me was defiantly breezy and romantic, but ultimately possessed of a quintessential knack for songcraft that only the most timeless records hold.
Quentin Harrison is the author of Record Redux: Spice Girls, the first written overview of the Spice Girls musical history spanning 1996 to 2016. For more of his perspective on their collective and individual recordings, his book is available physically or digitally now. Additional books in his Record Redux series cover the discographies of Carly Simon, Donna Summer and Madonna. Record Redux: Kylie Minogue, Harrison’s forthcoming book, will be available in November 2019.