ALBUM THROWBACK: EMMA BUNTON | GIRL LIKE ME (2001)
It only seems like yesterday when the the-artist-formerly-known-as-Baby served up the first of her four studio albums to date – "A Girl Like Me," Released in April 2001, it went straight to the top of the charts. It stayed there for two weeks, making Emma the fourth solo Spice Girl to achieve a no.1 single. Sessions for the project commenced at least two years before the reveal. They ran parallel to the pre-scheduled "Forever" —the third and final album from the Spice Girls—a testament to Bunton’s “nose to the grindstone” labour principle that she juggled both her Spice Girls commitments and solo aspirations. Three of her Spice sisters—Geri Horner, Melanie C and Melanie B—had already put recordings forward between 1999 and 2000; this left Bunton and Victoria Beckham as the last two Spice Girls to step out with their albums. Bunton knew that she had one shot at making a declarative statement of artistic intent with her debut—she was not about to waste it. The coterie of talent enlisted by Bunton to pen and craft material with her for "A Girl Like Me" spoke to the stakes. The experienced crew included Julian Gallagher, Andrew Frampton, John Themis, Martin Harrington, Carl Sturken, Steve Mac, Chris Braide, Rhett Lawrence, Richard Stannard, Darren Stokes and Lindsay Edwards.
Bunton guested with fellow English vocalists Shelly Nelson and Wendy Page (of Skin Games renown) on "Eleven to Fly" (1999), the conclusive Tin Tin Out set on VC Records, a subsidiary arm of Virgin Records. Appearing on that long-player was a punchy but ultimately reverent cover of the Edie Brickell & New Bohemians 1988 smash “What I Am”—Bunton’s sweet, soulful performance powered the track. They sent it hurtling into the upper reaches of the British charts. Unintentionally, Bunton usurped “What I Am” as her own de facto inaugural solo single within the eyes of the music press and the public; its eventual inclusion on "A Girl Like" Me did little to disprove this notion. That rich, album-oriented-rock sound that Bunton couched herself in on “What I Am” was gorgeously replicated on four of the sides contained on "A Girl Like Me:" “What Took You So Long?,” “Take My Breath Away,” “High on Love,” and “Sunshine on a Rainy Day.” Three of these songs are Bunton originals that saw her exercise her songwriting skills alongside the creatives she elected to collaborate with—only “Sunshine on a Rainy Day,” a lush rendering of English indie darling Zoë’s 1991 chestnut, did not belong to her.
Concurrent to those guitar-pop vibes abounding on "A Girl Like" are also the adult contemporary, modern R&B, throwback soul, and Latin flourishes heard via “A World Without You,” “Spell It O-U-T,” “Better Be Careful,” and “We’re Not Gonna Sleep Tonight”—all of them fine canvases for Bunton’s uncanny vocal instrument. But, in addition to illustrating her keen abilities as a singer, these entries signposted the album’s central theme: Bunton’s unostentatious transition from girl to woman. Up to that point, the congeniality that suffused the “Baby Spice profile” was, on occasion, crowded out by the personalities of Bunton’s fellow Spice Girls—either within the group dynamic or as they began branching out separately. Yet, on the flip side of that, Bunton was ever affable. That natural magnetism shines brightly in each of the scripts found on A Girl Like Me, but with a freshly minted adult sophistication that comes through best on two of its pluckiest deep cuts: the title piece and “Been There, Done That.” This is to say nothing of the outtakes left off of the LP—“Let Your Baby Show You How to Move,” “Close Encounter,” “Invincible,” “Merry-Go-Round,” “(Hey You) Free Up Your Mind”—that further advanced Bunton’s newfound confidence and clarity. Thankfully, all these non-album tracks were assigned as the B-sides for all three singles "A Girl Like Me" spun off during its commercial lifespan.
With the completed product under her belt, Bunton knew that these songs—appetizingly presented in a diverse pop style—about life, love, and all the general particulars in between were universal in their appeal. She was sure to enamour not only her established bloc of Spice Girls fans but prospective listeners divorced from the Spice phenomenon. Fourteen days before "A Girl Like Me" was impacted, courtesy of Bunton’s longtime label Virgin, its first single, “What Took You So Long?” went out to radio and retail. It was an instant smash that brought Bunton her first number-one single. Listening to ‘A Girl Like Me’ some 20 years on it conjures up a great time in pop when solo spice girls sat alongside Kylie, Destiny’s Child and Hear’Say on the charts. It has perhaps dated a bit, especially on the more r&b pop tracks, but still a solid effort.