Released: 12th August 2002
Writers: Adam Anders / Nikki Hassman / Stephanie Lewis
Peak position: #8
Chart run: 8-29-45-65-X-X-59-50
Never let it be said that H & Claire didn’t take risks. At a point when the temptation would be to play it safe, the duo’s second single saw a swift – and entirely unexpected – change of direction.
On paper, things weren’t going too badly for H & Claire following the release of their debut single DJ. They’d scored a top three hit and sustained a regular TV presenting gig. But if only things were that simple. The halcyon days of bubblegum pop were coming to an end, and the duo’s legacy as one of the headline acts of that era made them a hard sell to a new audience. Thus, their survival largely depended on clinging onto their existing fanbase; not easy when the duo were still being painted as the bad guys following Steps’ split the previous year. Pop fans naturally move on, but with such negative discourse around H & Claire, there was even more reason for them to do so. Even SM:TV – which offered the pair a regular weekly audience – was past its peak, with viewing figures slowly creeping downwards. No-one could say that H & Claire weren’t putting in a hell of a lot of work, but they were confronted with diminishing returns at almost every stage, many of which were due to factors far beyond their control.
It’s to their credit, then, that the duo didn’t play it safe with their second single when there was every reason to do so. H & Claire laid everything on the line with Half A Heart, which saw them move in a completely new direction that was markedly different from anything they’d attempted before. A mid-tempo, pseudo-R&B number was going to be a hard sell, and it’s entirely possible that many fans just didn’t know what to do with a song like this. But however difficult it might be to justify it from a commercial perspective, Half A Heart is nevertheless a neat little track that trades sweeping hooks for something altogether more subtle.
The entire production captures the theme of feeling trapped in a relationship that is going around in circles. The muffled, thunking beat is the perfect metaphor of the monotonous, joyless situation that H & Claire find themselves in: “I’ve got half a heart to love you, half a mind to leave, torn between what I want, and what I need”. While thematically, this may have been treading over old ground for the duo – and pop music in general – what’s different here is the way Half A Heart projects all of those feelings onto the audience. It’s hard to imagine the intention was to create a track which was deliberately hard work to sit through, but there could scarcely be a more perfect way to cohesively convey the link between the song’s message and its sound.
H & Claire give an excellent performance here, delivering the bite of resentment that is demanded by the lyrics. The way H practically spits out: “So do your Jekyll and Hyde thing, your out of sight is out of mind thing” with such venom is a perfect demonstration of how much more invested the duo sound here. Claire’s performance, on the other hand, is more about what she doesn’t do than what she does. It would be well within her gift to smash the song – and the subject of the lyrics – to pieces with the power of her voice. But instead, she adopts a level of restraint that had rarely been seen; the way she coolly simmers: “First of all you wanna hold me, baby then you hot and cold me” speaks volumes. Although not quite as much as the withering glares she delivers in the music video!
Indeed, Half A Heart puts right many of the things that didn’t quite click with DJ.One of the most obvious ones being that for all the controversy around H & Claire leaving Steps to form a duo, their first venture didn’t sound much like a duet at all. That’s not the case here though; the song makes a very credible attempt at establishing a more collaborative approach, with better distribution of solos, harmonies and the inclusion of a chorus where both singers are audible. There are moments of real dynamism here; the middle-eight has some great interplay between the two: “You’re everything I dreamed of, half the time (half the time), you’re so START. AND. STOP*…Oh baby I’m…”. This isn’t necessarily a song where H & Claire are supposed to sound like they’re having fun, but when they break character, there’s an appealing playfulness present that was sorely missed elsewhere.
*The official artwork states the lyric is: “Stop and start”, but that doesn’t seem right. If you are H and/or Claire (or one of the songwriters), please get in touch to confirm which is correct.
As a whole package, Half A Heart provided a real insight into how H & Claire were developing spreading their wings (while also demonstrating that a cohesive musical identity was still a work in progress). Of the two B-sides, Together was notable for boasting a songwriting credit from Gary Barlow, but it’s Don’t Give Up (Don’t Let Go) which represents perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the duo’s entire campaign. It’s a brooding electro-pop track with a lush, late-night ‘80s production that is swimming with atmosphere and feels strikingly adult; this is the perfect example of what post-Steps material could – and should – have sounded like. The song mightn’t have changed the overall trajectory of H & Claire’s career and would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb on their album (not that Half A Heart was much better in that regard), but it showcases some real potential and musical growth for the duo. So it’s a shame that it went mostly unnoticed.
The music video for Half A Heart is über-stylish and futuristic, as we find H & Claire wandering around a shape-shifting cubic building that resembles a Windows 98 screensaver. There is a continued insistence on portraying the duo in a much more serious light, although at least in this case it’s consistent with the song, which isn’t exactly cheery. The video doesn’t get enough credit for how much money was (or at least looks as if it was) thrown at it; these sort of effects didn’t come cheap in the early ‘00s. So, even though not very much happens besides a lot of purposeful walking to nowhere in particular, there’s a lot of swishy editing to keep the video flowing. Indeed, if you were to try and storyboard a music video in 2002 that attempted to portray a pure pop act in a more credible light, Half A Heart wouldn’t be far of the mark. The Hype Williams-esque aesthetic cues are a recognisable influence, and it’s a very solid attempt for something that was – understandably – created on a more modest budget.
Half A Heart debuted and peaked at #8 in the charts, which feels about right considering the context. However, this wasn’t just about growing resentment from Steps fans, although that certainly needs to be factored in. The duo found themselves caught in the same bind that many other acts of their ilk did during this period of chart re-alignment. Half A Heart wasn’t “pop” enough for a pop audience, and it’s wasn’t “R&B” enough for the R&B market. It sat somewhere in the middle, appealing mostly to hardcore fans, and that’s precisely what the chart position – and its subsequent descent – reflects. This was a bit of a no-win situation for H & Claire; it’s easy to sit back and say they should have done something different, but that’s exactly what this single was. The fact that it didn’t quite work (in a commercial sense) doesn’t mean it wasn’t a risk worth taking.
It’s difficult to look back on Half A Heart and not associate it with a sense that the ground was crumbling around H & Claire. However, the song has nothing to prove anymore; it might still leave some people flummoxed but give it another chance because there’s absolutely nothing else like this interesting – and, dare we say, accomplished – curio within their oeuvre.