Nicola Roberts has made a career out of defying expectation. Nobody thought she’d get far on Popstars: The Rivals (remember that?), least of all judge Pete Waterman, who attempted to veto her at every stage in favour of less talented but more polished contestants. She sailed into a band that nobody expected would last much beyond their debut single. They released six Platinum-selling albums and 21 singles. Frequently overshadowed by her more high-profile band mates, nobody ever expected she’d do anything as a solo artist either, and yet here she is with not only the best effort by a former Girl Aloud so far, but one of the strongest and most inventive pop albums I’ve heard all year.
Unlike so many play-it-safe post-group solo debuts by pop acts who jump aboard the MOR bandwagon in hopes of ‘doing a Robbie’, Cinderella’s Eyes really feels like the product of the person who recorded it. Girls Aloud’s songwriting and production team Xenomania are nowhere to be seen, but their trick of marrying quirky, conversational lyrics to unconventional song-structures is evident. The Diplo-produced opening track Beat of My Drum is enough to instantly indicate that we’re a world away from Kym Marsh territory here. It was widely perceived to be a risky lead single, and it didn’t quite pay off in the charts, but it’s far from the most surprising moment here. In fact there’s hardly anything on show here that plays things safe. The closest is a fairly straight cover of the Korgi’s Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime, but while Girls Aloud’s cover versions were generally uninspired attempts to level out their more out-there releases (think their limp rendition of See The Day swiftly following the manic Biology into the charts to soak up a few Christmas sales), here the song fits in perfectly with the introspective mood of the album.
On second single Lucky Day, she impersonates the ringing of a telephone and a lovers kisses via a series of slightly alarming yelps. She raps in a thick scouse accent on Take a Bite and shrieks like Kate Bush on amphetamines throughout the title track. She never got the lion’s share of the vocals in Girls Aloud, and she relishes stretching herself here, finding interesting ways to approach each track. Sometimes she sounds like Lily Allen – such as on the eerie I – at other times Cilla Black by way of Alison Goldfrapp. The warbling power balladry you’d expect from a reality singing contest veteran is nowhere to be found.
With a co-writing credit on every track, the lyrics are frequently nakedly autobiographical, with pointed references to tabloid criticism of her unconventional looks and supposed moodiness. Emotionally it covers a lot of similar territory to Lady Gaga’s dreadful Born This Way album, but the outcome could not be more different. Gaga offers a preening, self-absorbed vision of outsiderdom, constructed around wafer thin and increasingly tiresome concepts such as the ‘little monsters’ and the ‘Haus of Gaga’. Songs like Bad Kids and Born This Way don’t feel empowering, they feel patronising, delivered from a distance by a woman of such titanic self-belief that there’s no room for the slightest glimmer of vulnerability or humanity. Nicola’s lyrics are less universal, but vastly more relatable, not to mention believable. People can be horrid, and they’ll make you feel like shit. But you get on with it. I’ll take that over empty nonsense like Don’t be a drag just be a queen any day of the week.
A couple of months ago I wrote an article bemoaning the fact that the token “pop” nominations for the Mercury music prize – Adele and Katy B this year, Jamelia and La Roux in years past – are almost invariably lazy choices that merely represent the most commercially successful acts that year who still have a veneer of artistic credibility. Cinderella’s Eyes, a brave, personal and creative album that is bound to be under-recognised commercially, would be a perfect choice for the pop nomination in 2012. It won’t be, but it should.