Released: 4th May 1998
Writers: Søren Rasted / Claus Norreen
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-3-7-14-20-27-37-43-62-68
That Aqua would do a ballad was not in itself a shock. It was obligatory to have at least one on any pop album, after all. But Turn Back Time is much more than a tick in the box; indeed, we quite openly declare it to be their finest song by a country mile, and one of the best pop ballads of the ‘90s to boot.
After topping the chart with Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones, there was absolutely no doubt that Aqua had proven their worth as purveyors of cartoon pop music. There were several viable tracks on Aquarium that could easily have consolidated their status (and no, we’re still not really over the fact that of the seven singles released from the album, none of them was Happy Boys & Girls). However, there is the old adage that surprises are better than promises, and Turn Back Time was one of the biggest surprises of the ‘90s.
If you had to predict what an Aqua ballad would sound like, you would probably draw obvious parallels from their uptempo songs, whose melodies were absolutely infectious, but which hit on very overt nursery rhyme-esque hooks with grandiose production values. And having landed a spot on the soundtrack to Sliding Doors, that almost gave the song a licence to be ridiculously overblown and melodramatic. And yet in Turn Back Time, we have a ballad that took a very different approach to everything we had become accustomed to from Aqua. Understated and nuanced were terms rarely associated with the group; and in fact, it’s fair to say they probably weren’t ever used again. Indeed, how Aqua ended up on the soundtrack alongside Jamiroquai, Dido and Elton John remains one of pop’s great mysteries.
I’ve seen it coming like a thief in the night,
I’ve seen it coming from the flash of your light
So give me strength,
To face this test tonight
The most immediately striking aspect of Turn Back Time is how cold it feels; from the simple piano melody emerges an electronic beat, which sustains that feeling of gloomy isolation. This is a song that keeps the listener at arm’s length for almost its entirety; it’s certainly something of a mood piece. And whilst the stirring piano melody occasionally breaks through the atmosphere, for the most part, the track sustains an icy presence.
Undoubtedly the key moment in Turn Back Time occurs shortly after the two-minute mark. As the second chorus ends, the song descends into a juddering, grinding breakdown. The electronic beat suddenly becomes much more aggressive, chewing over Lene’s distorted vocals as she merely repeats: “The bolt reminds me I was there”. Just as it seems Turn Back Time is about to undergo a rather dramatic change of direction; everything stops. It’s as if the song resets itself, leaving just Lene singing the chorus whilst the gentle piano melody swells, and the production rebuilds itself to its pre-breakdown state. This might genuinely be one of the most beautiful moments in ‘90s pop music; it’s masterfully orchestrated and effortlessly carried out.
Vocally, Turn Back Time is somewhat divisive depending on which angle you’re coming from. Now, we know that Lene can play a character when she needs to. After all, her turn in Barbie Girl was so good it earned Aqua a lawsuit from Mattel. But in this song, the only character she needs to play is herself and without a concept to guide the delivery, her performance ends up being somewhat disconnected. In that sense, Turn Back Time might leave you craving a bit more feeling, as it seems there is a really broken, vulnerable performance hidden just out of view. On the flipside, if you really buy into the disassociation surrounding the production on the song then you may well feel that a disconnected and, dare we say it, functional performance is all that Turn Back Time needs. It leaves the song as a moment for ponderance and reflection, without dragging the listener on a deeply personal journey. In terms of the vocals, it’s worth pointing out that Lene doesn’t quite get the whole song to herself; as the track draws to a close, she’s joined by the boys (well, Claus and Søren) for their: “If only I could, if only I could” backing vocals. It’s the only real indication of a climactic moment to the song – and a surprisingly effective one. Having undertaken the burden of the song alone, Lene being aurally rejoined by her bandmates in its closing moments feels somewhat evocative.
In contrast to the bold music videos of the previous singles, which were pitched as mini-movies, Turn Back Time gets a much more understated treatment. Between frequent clips from Sliding Doors, the concept mirrors the movie in that as Aqua pass through the ticket barriers onto the London Underground, Lene becomes ‘separated’ from herself and spends the rest of the video chasing the group around trying to rejoin herself. This is quite not how the plot of Sliding Doors worked, but with a much shorter running time of four minutes, the video offers a reasonable reduction of the key element. Of course, if Lene’s discombobulated self didn’t stop at the gate and sing a few lines of the first verse, she probably would have quickly caught up with herself and saved four minutes of bother. And don’t even get us started on her wrenching open the doors to the tube carriage at the end of the video. As anyone who’s tried it will know, it’s considered the height of rudeness and would usually earn a sea of irate glares from all and sundry. Conveniently for Lene, only her bandmates are onboard and she’s able to rejoin herself for a comforting arm around the shoulder from Rene, which is actually his sole involvement in Turn Back Time. Despite the fact that the video doesn’t make a show of itself, there is actually quite a lot of camera trickery involved allowing both Lene’s to be onscreen at the same time, however briefly. And whilst the overall filmic quality is rougher than the norm for Aqua, it perfectly suits the song.
There is little doubt that Turn Back Time’s chart success was propelled by the momentum from Aqua’s previous chart-toppers, rather than the quality of the song itself. But either way, it was a #1 single, and deservedly so. Whilst not quite such a dominating worldwide hit, this single proved much more important in qualifying Aqua not as a group who created cartoon pop anthems because they needed to, but because they wanted to. Turn Back Time put their talent as pop connoisseurs beyond dispute once and for all.