My Happy Place
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Twenty years ago, Emma Bunton—the youngest member of the British pop quintet the Spice Girls—was the fourth in line among her fellow Spice sisters to make her solo mark separate from the group’s remarkable rise. It was an unconventional choice at the time, to partner with the dance-rock production clique Tin Tin Out to render a version of the Edie Brickell and New Bohemians charter “What I Am,” but it sent Bunton sailing into the U.K Top Five upon release.
It was the first of several hits Bunton landed in the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2006 across three albums. However, as her priorities shifted toward familial concerns and other vocational interests, her recording career went dormant for twelve years. The seed for Bunton’s fourth long player My Happy Place—her first to be sanctioned by the BMG label—was quietly planted in the last two years of that decade of inactivity. That same seed has now bloomed and in this way, My Happy Place comes as a surprise and an anomaly in today’s harried musical climate.
Despite a secure legacy of her own, Bunton’s affection for songcraft and singing is what sent her back into the studio with producer Brian Rawling. Alongside Rawling, Bunton conceived a semi-covers project to feature two of her own original compositions, “Baby Please Don’t Stop” and “Too Many Teardrops.”
The tracks are instant Bunton classics that platform her still-agile, primrose colored voice set into a sweet and salty Sixties pop style that defined her two previous albums, Free Me (2004) and Life in Mono (2006). This same aural energy works gorgeously on “I Wish I Could Have Loved You More” and with it slotted between “Baby Please Don’t Stop” and “Too Many Teardrops,” the three songs make for a savory start to the record. Looking to the inclusion of “I Wish I Could Have Loved You More,” it points to Bunton’s varied choices for the established material making up the rest of My Happy Place.
The remaining selections curated for the album are close to the singer’s heart and act as proof of her own wide-ranging tastes: Candie Payne (“I Wish I Could Have Loved You More”), Dusty Springfield (“I Only Want to Be With You”), Madison Avenue (“Don’t Call Me Baby”), Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“You’re All I Need to Get By”), Norah Jones (“Come Away with Me”), Samantha Sang (“Emotion”), the Spice Girls (“2 Become 1”), the Beatles (“Here Comes the Sun”). It is a broad bunch of tunes that criss-cross genres and various periods in the popular music timeline.
As shown on her antecedent singles, album tracks and B-sides, Bunton knows her way around a cover. For this roster, Bunton forgoes radical reinvention in favor of respectful reinterpretation—though there are some exceptions. Four of the ten entries—“I Only Want to Be with You,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Come Away with Me,” and “2 Become 1”—are cast as duets with colleagues (Will Young, Josh Kumra, Robbie Williams) and family (Jade Jones). Each duet is enchanting, if slightly saccharine in execution. But Bunton’s earnestness makes them too genuine to dismiss other than to say they’re not to one’s taste. The stand out from this batch is the acoustic reworking of Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be with You” with Will Young. Its tempo is demurely rendered at a lovely pace ideal for Bunton’s and Young’s romantic vocal exchange.
Bunton’s rendition of Madison Avenue’s “Don’t Call Me Baby” could be argued to operate as the surprise of My Happy Place. Boasting a sultry vocal and rhythmic underpinning, it is an explicit wink from Bunton back to the coquettish dance-pop aestheticism that was part of the framework of her debut LP, A Girl Like Me (2001). It is the perfect candidate for election to second single status.
The audience for My Happy Place is divided between Bunton’s longtime Spice Girls devotees and the adult crowds she began courting as early as “What I Am.” That listener specificity will place limitations on the commercial and critical reach of My Happy Place; creatively, the record is a polished holding pattern hinting at something larger for Bunton later on. Still, My Happy Place sources its infectious feel-good spirit from Bunton’s own enthusiasm that is readily expressed in the content of the album. It is a welcome return for the pop vocalist even with it breaking no new ground in the process.
Notable Tracks: "Baby Please Don’t Stop" | “Don’t Call Me Baby” | "I Only Want to Be with You" | “Too Many Teardrops”
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. Harrison’s forthcoming book ‘Record Redux: Kylie Minogue’ will be available in November 2019.