It’s seven years since Little Mix were manufactured before viewers’ eyes on The X Factor. In pop terms, they’re like one of those giant tortoises hatched in the Seychelles when Queen Victoria was on the throne and still happily munching grass today. Girls Aloud’s career was done and dusted by this stage, JLS were but a distant memory and One Direction had lost a member and gone on “indefinite hiatus”. Little Mix’s progress seems to have continued without a hitch. There has been no scandal – no blurry cameraphone footage of Perrie or Jesy smoking an enormous joint or telling a bedraggled group of pre-teen fans to stuff their selfie up their arse. No one has left burnt out by the workload, nor has one of them gone strange, grown dreadlocks and started muttering bitterly about artistic credibility. Their last album, Glory Days (2016), has so far spent 89 weeks in the UK Top 40. All five of its singles went platinum.
The solitary cloud on the horizon hails from the US, where the quartet’s popularity has waned. Their early albums unexpectedly made the Top 10 but sales have since dipped considerably. There were few stateside takers for Glory Days, and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that its follow-up has been designed for the express purpose of trying to rectify this. LM5 ticks most of modern pop’s boxes, from the presence of Ed Sheeran in the writing credits to the appearance of a vaguely Latin-themed track, Love a Girl Right. This comes in part from the pen of a former member of Menudo (Ricky Martin’s boyband alma mater), and features flamenco-ish strumming, lyrics about “living la vida loca”, an electric guitar solo modelled in the image of Carlos Santana’s squealing interjections on his 1999 hit Maria Maria – and a surprisingly fantastic chorus.
Elsewhere, there are woke lyrics: “Oh, you on that feminist tip,” a mocking male voice interjects during Joan of Arc, before being shoutily told to do one. But the most striking thing about it might be how American it sounds. So American, in fact, that when a decidedly British idiom appears amid the mommas and booties and errywheres in the lyrics – ballad Told You So combats a pal’s romantic despair with an offer to “put the kettle on” – it sounds oddly out of place.
The guest appearances include Missy Elliott-approved rapper Sharaya J and Nicki Minaj, the latter doing her stuff over Woman Like Me. This single apparently caused Little Mix to fall out with Simon Cowell, although it’s hard to see why: an intriguing mix of reggae guitars and rimshots and dubstep churn, it hits a perfect spot between commerciality and excitement. Joining the usual array of pop production talent is R&B auteur Timbaland – who is in good form on More Than Words, which starts as a ballad before wrongfooting the listener by heading somewhere noticeably weirder: the chorus pairs a wilfully leaden beat with bursts of melodramatic synthesiser.
More jarringly, the group often sing not so much in an American accent but in a full-blown imitation of a deep south mumble rapper, a really odd thing for a band whose members variously hail from the bayous of Romford, High Wycombe and South Shields. You might suggest that there’s a certain irony about Strip, a laudably body-positive song on which listeners are advised to be themselves and love who they are by a singer audibly pretending to be one of Atlanta trap trio Migos, but never mind: the track is great, spare and vaguely sinister. The vocals on Wasabi, meanwhile, are similarly daft but it’s still thrilling, jolting you from minimal electronics to an explosive, distorted guitar-driven middle-eight.
In fact, LM5’s flaws aren’t really down to its US-focused slant, unwittingly funny though that sometimes is. They’re the classic flaws of today’s pop albums: it’s too long, its highlights appearing amid boilerplate filler, including the ho-hum Monster in Me and American Boy. A recent Rolling Stone report about the way albums are now consumed revealed that six of the 25 tracks on Drake’s Scorpion accounted for 82% of the album’s total Spotify streams. You wonder if it will prompt a rethink of this approach. What’s the point in stuffing an album with tracks if no one’s paying the padding any attention?
But that’s a wider issue. Padded it may be, but the strike rate is high enough for LM5 to prolong Little Mix’s career even further, at least in Britain. What Americans will make of it is anyone’s guess. If they see imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, then they should be tickled pink.
This week Alexis listened to
Rustin’ Man: The World’s in Town
Fifteen years after his superb collaboration with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb returns, his voice sounding not unlike Robert Wyatt. The World’s in Town is dreamy and desolate in equal measure.
• This article was amended on 16 November 2018 to note that Little Mix’s album Glory Days had spent 89 weeks in the UK Top 40 to date, not 69 weeks in the British chart as stated in an earlier version.