Una Healy left pop band The Saturdays in 2014 after a very successful six-year stint which included many top ten hits on the UK charts and several successful tours. A marriage to rugby player Ben Foden has produced 2 children and Una is now back in the spotlight as solo artist, positioned by her record label, Decca, as a rootsy country artist. It’s a smart move. Decca are the UK home of The Shires and they are clearly using the same blueprint with her that worked so well with Ben & Crissie. ‘The Waiting Game’ is not a country album but country is a broad church these days, it welcomes all comers and Una will find a loyal fan base and demographic out there with this quality release. As a 45 year old male father of teenagers, it’s just that demographic is not me!
The album opens with its strongest song, ‘Battlelines’. Built around acoustic and electric guitar and a strong, chant like mantra in the chorus of, “This fight, this fight is for love,” it expertly blurs the lines between pop, rock and country and would easily be at home on a Pat Benatar album. The most up-tempo, rocky song on the album – I would have liked to see more of this type of song on ‘The Waiting Game’.
Tracks 2 and 3 are also very strong. ‘The Waiting Game’ has a Shires-like beginning with Una’s voice coming in over a light guitar riff and some clapping. There is another catchy chorus if you like the Radio 2 style – Shires sound then this will be right up your street. Chances are you will have heard ‘Stay My Love’ already. Given a big push by Decca, Una and Sam Palladio (of TV’s ‘Nashville’ show) even performed the song on ‘The One Show’. It is a quiet, introspective song with Celtic or Gaelic overtones. Palladio’s Cornish heritage and Una’s Irish roots blending seamlessly well.
The problem with ‘The Waiting Game’ begins to show after the first three songs, which are all diverse and interesting in their own right. After those the album takes a blander, more generic turn. ‘All You Ever Need is Love’ has some nice piano runs but doesn’t really go anywhere. ‘Please Don’t Tell Me’ begins with strings and acoustic guitars and features a strong vocal from Una (which is typical of all the tracks on the album) but seems bland to me, it doesn’t grab me in any way like ‘Battlelines’ did.
Similarly, ‘Craving You’ and ‘Out the Door’ tread that mid-tempo pop path, augmented by piano and acoustic guitar. Both songs have smooth, soulful vocal deliveries and in the latter Una lets her Irish twang bring a different edge to the song but neither really shines amongst the tracks on offer here, neither really has a USP beyond pleasant, Radio 2 daytime ‘country-lite’ music for people whose main musical interests are The Shires and Ward Thomas. Again, I stress, there is no musical snobbery at play here because there are a lot of people out there who will like this album, but for those of us with a deeper connection to the genre it may well not appeal.
There are two out and out disco songs on ‘The Waiting Game’ that could have been left over from Una’s stint in The Saturdays. ‘Alarm Bells’ and ‘S.O.S’ will both find fans out there, after all, if Keith Urban can do it with ‘The Fighter’ and Thomas Rhett with ‘Tangled’ then the precedent has well and truly been set! Not really my thing but then this album is not looking to bring me on board. If you like disco-pop amongst your acoustic country-lite then I haven’t heard any better examples.
There are a couple of quality songs in the back end of the album that give us a glimpse of where Una might go if Decca let her off the reins a little next time around. ‘Staring at the Moon’ is a song for her children about life away from home. “I’m gonna be home soon so just keep staring at the moon and know I’ll be looking back at you,” she sings, once again utilising that slight Gaelic edge to her voice in preference to the poppier, cleaner delivery she chooses on some of the other tracks. The song begins with a jangly guitar and thumping bass drum, reminiscent of The Shires’ ‘A Thousand Hallelujahs’ and continues in that vein whilst final track ‘Angel Like You’ is a terrific way to close the album. Her most personal, meaningful song about bereavement and loss. A simple beginning gives way to a bigger, stronger chorus in what will be a great live song. Meaningful and uplifting the song closes the album with a bang, something missing in the blander mid-section.
‘The Waiting Game’ is a strong album. A strong pop album, slightly country around the edges. If Decca are looking for artists to explore the post-Shires landscape then they have struck gold with Una Healy, Ben Earle of The Shires even gets a production credit on the album. They clearly have a plan and a blueprint which worked well the first time – my issue is how long can they keep finding a fan base and live audience for that style of music before their audience has moved on? Una’s vocals are strong and passionate and the quality of ‘The Waiting Game’ is unquestionable, it just lacks an individuality, lacks a USP that will elevate it beyond the target demographic. Or, maybe this is a stroke of genius and its pleasant, breezy, smooth pop overtones will propel it beyond all genres and demographics. And this time next year Una will be back on the charts and back in the arenas, and deeper country listeners, like me, will be left scratching our heads at the fickle nature of the music industry and will have to tip our hats to Decca and their plans to conquer the world!
James Daykin (@rockjames)