Released: 2nd June 2003
Writers: Kevin Hughes / Rick Astley
Peak position: #10
Chart run: 10-28-52-68-X-X-X-57
In the aftermath of Popstars: The Rivals, Girls Aloud forged ahead and by mid-2003 had racked up a hit single and album. One True Voice, on the other hand, …well, they had Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words. The group’s second single remains one of the most bafflingly brilliant moments of pop self-sabotage to occur in the ‘00s.
The original series of Popstars had shown that the victors of the show were not necessarily the winners in chart terms – by this point, Hear’Say had already called it a day, and Liberty X were still a potent chart force. There was initially no reason to think that One True Voice couldn’t salvage something from the “disaster” of a debut single that sold 147,000 copies in its first week and peaked at #2 (we think it’s fair to say that perspective had well and truly been lost at this point). However, it rapidly became clear that unusually for a TV talent act, Girls Aloud actually had quite a clear creative direction with Xenomania on board. Again, not a huge issue and certainly not something that couldn’t be emulated to create some momentum behind One True Voice. And so, onto the long-awaited second single…
In hindsight, it’s incredibly evident that the strategy with Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words was that there was no long-term plan whatsoever and the single was merely an easy way for the record label to ditch the group with minimal fuss. There is no way around the fact that no matter how entertaining and enjoyable we find Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words, it could scarcely try any harder to sound like a track that does not want to be a hit under any circumstance. And in this scenario, it is trying very hard indeed. The song was co-written by Rick Astley – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the days before he became a viral internet sensation through Rickrolling, this wasn’t exactly going to be a selling point to the One True Voice audience. The other limiting factor of Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words – other than its puzzling use of brackets – is that it’s most definitely not a singer’s song. One True Voice were famously formed not as a boyband but a “male vocal harmony group”, therefore you would expect such a vital single to play to their strengths – but the song gives little if any opportunity for the group to demonstrate that.
Yet despite its conceptual flaws, we love Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words. The track has the same sort of high-tempo pop beat that was commonplace in the late ’90s but had fallen by the wayside somewhat. It doesn’t really do anything besides pulse and crash every so often to announce the transition from verse to chorus – otherwise, it’s just there to give the song relentless energy with minimal deviance. And we can’t ignore the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics. Lines like: “I would write a sonnet, put your name upon it” and “In my heart I am a poet, don’t know how to show it” could only exist so unashamedly within the confines of pop music. A few years earlier and these lyrics would make absolute sense – as would the references to Romeo and Juliet – and most people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But in 2003 pop music had started to grow up a bit and yesterday’s norm had begun to be perceived as naff – and when compared to the much cooler image adopted by Girls Aloud, the difference was inescapably palpable. Taken out of context, Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words is not markedly worse than many songs from the bubblegum pop era. But Sound Of The Underground had already led many critics to consider One True Voice as old-fashioned, and this single did little to abate that image.
You can be my Juliet
And I promise you no regrets
While there is little room within the song for the boys to flex their vocals, that’s not to say they didn’t give it a good go. We still absolutely live for the subtle ad-libs (“How can I?”) and the falsetto towards the end – but such moments are fleeting because the tempo of the track just doesn’t give the boys a chance, either collectively or individually, to give anything more than a functional performance. Thus, while Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words is an enjoyable summery bop, it does little to sell One True Voice as a pop prospect.
Indeed, it soon became evident that the group weren’t feeling the song at all. In a curious turn of events, the promotion for the single largely consisted of One True Voice openly slating it. On the one hand, it was a refreshing approach – and in fairness, many pop acts at the time disassociated themselves from the music they released. But not many of them did it at the same time as trying to sell the single to the public. You can sense in the music video how little interest there was from the group – it’s not a visual that’s high in concept, but despite a lovely poolside location, One True Voice remain mostly static throughout. Any semblance of dancing mainly consists of the group rocking on the spot as though they’re having controlled seizures. In fairness, there’s very little else they could do. Still, combined with the unflattering reviews they were giving to their material, there’s inherently a sense of One True Voice going through the motions in almost every aspect of the music video.
Despite the odds being stacked against Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words, the single did crack the top ten, although it exited the top 40 just two weeks later. The group had already decided to part ways with Pete Waterman, citing creative differences – we hear that a lot, but in this case, we believe it. Whatever intentions One True Voice had, just a few months later they split up. Whether relations between the group were ever has harmonious as they appeared in public was debated, but fundamentally they were always going to struggle to recover from their initial mismanagement. As parting gifts go, Shakespeare’s (Way With) Words isn’t bad – its biggest flaw is simply that it didn’t belong in 2003.