Steps were always slightly out of vogue, the retro elements of their pure pop formula keeping them inside the charts but outside of the critical consensus. Cometh the pandemic, though, cometh the heroes – public reaction to news of the group’s return this year was nothing short of rapturous, with their beaming positivity seeming to provide something desperately needed in this socially-distanced epoch.
Beneath this, though, the pop landscape was shifting once more. The flashy plasticity of Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ echoed some of Steps’ work, while their essential DNA – Scandinavian songwriting elements, the euro-pop sugar rush, and chorus-chorus-chorus-chorus – has rarely been more in vogue.
‘What The Future Holds’ sticks to the formula with gusto, and that’s perhaps what makes it so refreshing. In an era of conceptual pop Steps refuse to back down from their Top 40 adrenalin, outpacing the pop futurism of PC Music, say, with the unforced smile that seams to beam out of every single second of its 13 tracks.
It’s not subtle, but it definitely works. ‘Something In Your Eyes’ pulls at the heartstrings while pirouetting on to the dancefloor, while the title track – co-written by Sia – is a pulsating daytime radio a them. ‘Heartbreak In The City’ is a breathless rush, while the euro-pop escapades of ‘To The Beat Of My Heart’ and ‘One Touch’ offer blinding neon tones.
The spectre of ABBA looms large on the new record – the soft-pop ballad moves on ‘Holf My Heart’ for example, or the frisky ‘Come And Dance With Me’ – but there’s no real shame in reaching towards the legacy of one of pop’s finest ever battalions. As above, so below.
Indeed, there’s an intrinsic Scandinavian element to much of ‘What The Future Holds’ – Sweden’s Robin Stjernberg co-produces ‘Hold My Heart’ while Something In Your Eyes’ was initially recorded by Jenny Silver for the Melodifestivalen back in 2011. At heart, there’s something very European at work in one of Britain’s defining pop phenomenons, and it’s all the better for it.
Ultimately, the lines were drawn for Steps a long time ago. No, it’s not original; yes, it’s deeply shallow – but for pop fans, those are kind of the enduring elements of their appeal, with its teeth-squeaking plasticity allowing the group to retain a cartoonish universe of their own. ‘What The Future Holds’ is an unrelenting blast of joy that aims to brighten up 2020 – if you object, well, there’s always social distancing.
Words: Robin Murray
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