In stark contrast to today’s all-encompassing pop persona, Mabel’s arrival seven years ago was a sleek example of cool-press-only positioning. Early black-and-white photos in support of debut single Know You Better pictured her sans smile, usually overwhelmed by a bomber jacket emblazoned with a cutting-edge skateboard brand’s logo. Her backstory helped: her mum’s Neneh Cherry, while her dad, Cameron McVey, produced career-defining albums by the likes of Massive Attack and the Sugababes. Mabel was still only 19, however, and her early artistic persona – aloof hype-beast making nocturnal alt-pop – hung off her as awkwardly as her oversized fashion choices.
All that changed with 2017’s Finders Keepers. A featherlight love song with a killer chorus, it chimed with that summer’s rise of Afroswing and became a UK top 10 smash. Those muted hues were suddenly streaked with primary colours and lo-fi R&B was replaced with a cornucopia of genres including pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music. By 2019’s club-ready, Top 3 smash Don’t Call Me Up, Mabel was a fully fledged pop star, stating in an interview that she wanted to avoid making music you needed a degree to enjoy. She was adept at cherrypicking collaborators – ranging from UK rapper Not3s to dance music overlord Tiësto – and any criticism at her desertion of worthy outsiderdom was drowned out by her 10 Top 20 hits, a platinum-selling debut album and a 2020 Brit award for best British female.
Please, no more pop songs exploring the dancing-and-crying paradigm!
While that debut album, High Expectations, felt more like a collection of singles than a cohesive whole, its success should have elevated Mabel to what pop fans have dubbed “big pop girl” status, an elite group of bop merchants that includes Dua Lipa and Ariana Grande. And yet Let Them Know, the lead single from Mabel’s second album, About Last Night…, only peaked at 19. Its two subsequent follow-up singles, meanwhile, have both missed the top 40. It’s an example not only of pop’s high stakes in comparison to tastemaker hedge-betting, but also of the importance of timing when it comes to ubiquity. Released last summer, Let Them Know’s bolshie, handbag house felt premature in its “meet you back on the dancefloor” proclamations. Twelve months later, however, not only would it have hit that summer sweet spot perfectly, it also would have slotted into the 1990s house revival alongside Beyoncé’s Break My Soul.
Despite that bit of bad timing, the resolutely banger-heavy About Last Night… sticks proudly to its dancefloor-based mood. Built around a loose concept, its 13 tracks follow a big night out from carefree beginnings to tear-stained realisations. After a short, scene-setting intro, the throbbing, string-drenched Animal is Mabel out on the prowl – “about to make a grown man purr”, she sings, that final word elongated into a playful growl. Paired with Let Them Know, it makes for a deliciously sugary opening; the aural equivalent of necking two WKD Blues. From there, the more decadent Shy and Definition continue the house flourishes, but their braggadocious lyrics – “I’m the definition of a good girl, bad bitch … something like a savage” runs Definition’s chorus – jar with the singer’s sweet and airy vocal style.
Things work better as the album shifts into its more reflective stages. Mabel sounds completely over it on the twirling, disco-tinged Let Love Go, which is only hampered by an unnecessary guest spot from rapper Lil Tecca. On the excellent Overthinking, which apes thegalloping 80s synthpop of the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights to perfection, she infuses lines such as “without you I can’t feel those butterflies, I fade away” with genuine sadness. And despite Crying on the Dance Floor’s title – please, no more pop songs exploring the dancing-and-crying paradigm! – the lyrics focusing on cheering up a brokenhearted friend (“no drama in the bathroom, not tonight”) are delivered so earnestly, it makes you want to hug your best mate while slurring incoherently in their ear about how it isn’t just the drink talking.
Just before the album glides towards its obvious narrative conclusion – the second-to-last track is called When the Party’s Over – Mabel throws in a plot twist. Still smarting from a breakup, she finds her eye starting to wander on the breezy, Carly Rae Jepsen-esque I Love Your Girl. Parked up outside her ex’s house, she spots his new partner in the window: “I keep on watching you kiss her, thought it was you I was missing, but now I’ve realised, I think I love your girl,” she trills. The reflective When the Party’s Over follows, musing soberly on messy highs and numbing lows.
That would be the perfect end to the album. Instead, it’s followed by a self-consciously wacky song – LOL – complete with slogan-ready lyrics ripe for TikTok ubiquity. It’s a shame, because while crafting hits is part of the deal you make when you switch lanes, as Mabel did all those years ago, it can be quickly undermined if the workings are shown too blatantly. Both LOL and the frictionless Jax Jones and Galantis collaboration Good Luck, which reduces Mabel to dance music rent-a-voice, feel like cynical nods to streaming playlists on an album that otherwise favours playful storytelling. Overall, About Last Night… manages to keep the party going – it’s just more convincing when tears mix with the prosecco.
July 16, 2022 at 06:55PM Michael Cragg