Unbreakable: A fitting title for the Westlife
- PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua () - November 17, 2002 - 12:00am
The release of a greatest hits album is an occasion for an artist to take stock. How far has one gone? How much farther can one go? And in what direction? Such a time has apparently arrived for Westlife with the release of Unbreakable, a compilation of the group’s hits and a sampling of six new songs. The assessment, in a capsule, is that while there is much to look back on, what lies ahead may be a path too straight and too narrow to be worth treading.

The group has come a long way from being the Boyzone "surrogates" that it was in 1999 when the group was formed, with Ronan Keating as its co-manager. The figures are impressive: 13 singles, three multi-platinum albums, and record sales in excess of 12 million – all in just three years. The new single (the title track) has just debuted on top, which puts Westlife behind only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Cliff Richard for the most number one singles in the U.K. (The group has acquired 11 so far.) No other boy band, or pop act in general, has enjoyed so sweet a success so swiftly in recent years.

It seems then that the album’s rather audacious title – Unbreakable – is only fitting. It is also a clever way of reassuring those fans who dread the thought of the group disbanding soon, as boy bands often do after they put out a greatest hits package, despite their assurances to the contrary. One notes as well that the album is subtitled Vol. I, as if to announce, "More hits to come!"

That is likely to be so, but it remains to be seen whether those hits will be worth collecting in a second volume. For, commercial success aside, what has the group to offer? If we go by the new songs, not much, it seems. Only one of them (Miss You Nights, rumored to be the next single) has a lyrical lift, but even that, when compared to the group’s better output – and to the song’s disadvantage, it is all here – is negligible. We find no Flying Without Wings or World of Our Own among the new songs, merely effete echoes of the group’s more maudlin tunes. The musical formulas have degenerated into just those: Formulas, whose effect, one may add, is to induce stupor – soporifics without the chemicals.

As though the boys themselves see through the hackwork that the songs are, their singing is tired, and consequently the listening is tiresome – even for the boy band apologist. If Westlife carries on this way, it is, indeed, headed west, that is, to where the sun sets and where life ends.

The conditional can easily be remedied by an imperative. Now that the group has gained enough clout to sell just about anything, it can attempt more ambitious projects worthy of their status and their following. Their listeners, after all, also grow up and will have other demands. It is not that the group should betray its boy band roots and suddenly turn "indie," but that there are boy bands and there are respectable boy bands: Take That, the Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone easily belong to the second category. (Take That, for instance, had camp value, and Boyzone will be remembered for transgressing, however inadvertently, gender divides.) When the final reckoning comes, under which heading will Westlife fall?

For now, it can at least lay claim to have a solid base of pop hits, among which are the most infectious (Uptown Girl) as well as the most insipid (Queen of My Heart) tunes to be offered to the public in recent years. Their being collected in one package is surely a boon to the fan, who, of course, wants to collect everything, and who can now experience uninterrupted and anew the better work of the group, not excluding all its earnestness and vigor.

He will also be pleased to find new takes on some of the old songs. The percussion in World of Our Own, for example, is made heavier, and the horns at the coda are rearranged. The Bop Bop Baby we hear is the version used in the video, whose ending is less monotonously arranged than the original.

The only thing he might complain about – if even he must be persnickety – is the absence of Seasons in the Sun and the inclusion of a revised Flying Without Wings (as a duet with BoA). The one counts among the group’s few songs where all the boys sing; the other is the sole Westlife song that can bid fair to acquire the oxymoronic status of "pop classic." Consequently, it would have been better if had been left virgin. One has the option, of course, to stop listening after track 13, as very likely one will. After all, two-thirds of an album of 19 tracks is already value enough.

If the group’s contract is not renewed at the end of 2003, Unbreakable will probably be the one Westlife album general listeners will ever need – or can stand. However, should Westlife come out with more material worthy of their mettle – and it would be unfair to give up on the group so soon – the boys would, indeed, be unbreakable. We may even find a Vol. X on our players someday which would unquestionably deserve the appellation "greatest hits."

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