All Saints’ ‘Red Flag’: Album Review

There’s a deep well of love for All Saints. The four-member English girl group, have only released three other albums in 19 years, with the bulk of their hits — remember “Never Ever”? — between 1997 and 2001. Red Flag (out today, ), recorded without label backing, is their first release in 10 years. This counts as a proper comeback, and All Saints have seized the moment.When lead Red Flag single “One Strike” arrived in late February, there was a collective gasp of relief: What could have gone very wrong was actually a solid All Saints Moment. It sounded familiar, but not stale, primarily due the strength of group member Shaznay Lewis‘ writing. The stately follow-up, “One Woman Man,” with its imperial string stabs on the chorus, is emblematic of the group’s sweet spot: Mid-tempo pop songs that, while not exactly banging, swim in lush vocal harmonies.

Red Flag delivers on the promise of those two tracks. “Legacy” artists all face the same question: What serves them best? A fresh “reboot” with current hit-makers, trying — perhaps in vain — to lure in new fans? Or should they exploit the qualities their longtime fans love best, risking low chart action? All Saints, like Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani, have produced an album that not only stays true to their sound, but reflects their maturity — as in experience, not age.

Mid-album, the trip-hoppy “This Is A War” is among the strongest songs the group has ever recorded. It takes a relationship lyric on the verses and explodes it on a string-laden chorus that easily serves as a manifesto for marriage equality: “If I gotta fight for the right to be loved and to love / Then this is war / If we can’t be free, you and me, to be loved and to love / Then what is it for?”

It’s a huge moment for All Saints. They sharply follow it with the delicate, Melanie Blatt-penned “Who Hurt Who,” a ballad that showcases their still-crystalline vocals. Built on piano and light strings, it’s a tearjerker.

More polarizing is “Ratchet Behaviour,” which attempts au courant swagger (“Why you come at me on the mad one?”), but sonically sounds like a cast off from the ladies’ 2006 album, Studio 1.  It may be trashy, but it’ll come on like a guilty pleasure after a few margaritas. Sure enough, they bring back the sleekness a few tracks later, with the strange, elegant “Tribal.” Side note: If ultra-poppy groove “Puppet On A String” doesn’t get a single release, it will be a shame.

Red Flag answers the harsh question the music business dangles over any group 20 years on: Can four settled forty-somethings reemerge with some of their finest music? Of course. All Saints just did it. Never say never. Ever.

Idolator rating: 4/5

Stephen Sears