Released: 29th September 1997
Writers: Travon Potts / Rhett Lawrence
Peak position: #4
Chart run: 4-5-7-11-11-18-23-35-51-60-71-75-67
There’s a fascinating back-story to Eternal’s final single as a trio because while Angel Of Mine was a perfect song to accompany their greatest hits collection, it had already been promised to another artist and came with certain conditions.
After Eternal claimed their first – long overdue – #1 single in May 1997, a decision was made to abandon promotion of the Before The Rain album (despite it returning to the top ten) and rush-release a greatest hits compilation in time for Christmas. Perhaps EMI sensed there was unlikely to be a better opportunity to capitalise on the group’s legacy. However, they may also have been aware that things were increasingly strained behind the scenes. A divide had emerged to the extent that Vernie and Easther Bennett were recording a lot of their vocals separately – sometimes in a different country altogether – from Kéllé Bryan. How long they’d be able to sustain that dynamic was anybody’s guess (about a year, as it happens), but it made sense to issue a career retrospective while the group was still functioning.
Regardless of the motivation, EMI needed some new tracks to accompany the greatest hits and didn’t have much time. So, they approached Rhett Lawrence, who’d co-written I Wanna Be The Only One, and it was while listening to a sampler of his material that Eternal happened across Angel Of Mine. They wanted it. But so did Clive Davis, and he’d already earmarked it for R&B singer Monica’s second album after hearing an early demo. However, she was yet to do anything with the track at that stage. Thus, an agreement was reached: Eternal could have Angel Of Mine so long as they didn’t release it in America, where Clive Davis (correctly) predicted the song would be a massive hit for Monica. Once she actually got around to recording it, that is. Even so, in many respects, her version was the original in that it more accurately reflects how the song was written to sound.
Although Angel Of Mine is notionally the same song across both versions, they are far from identical. Each was treated as its own composition and curated to the style of the respective artist. Eternal’s was produced by Rhett Lawrence – as their last single had been – while Rodney Jerkins was recruited to work with Monica. Furthermore, the song started with lyrics that occasionally come across as quite ’90s teen-orientated (“I’m checking for you boy, you’re right on time, angel of mine”) and didn’t necessarily fit so logically with Eternal as they did a 17-year-old Monica. Thus, Angel Of Mine was tweaked (“And I’ll adore you ‘til the end of time, angel of mine”), ensuring it was more authentic to where the group were in their lives.
Eternal had consistently – yet not overbearingly – incorporated elements of gospel and Christianity into their music, so even though Angel Of Mine is a love song, the new lyrics made it more in the spiritual sense, which was identifiably on-brand for them. The production is gorgeous, particularly the acoustic guitar melody that is so clean and ethereal; it creates an immediate aura of blissful peace. All the elements of the song – even the gentle beat that carries it along – exist within a mid to upper tone, giving Angel Of Mine a sense of weightless freedom that ties the whole track together thematically.
The same approach is mirrored in the vocals, showing a softer side to Easther Bennett’s voice. She could, quite easily, have belted her way through the song, but it’s not required. Instead, she utilises a higher, more whispery delivery on Angel Of Mine, ably backed with soothing harmonies (“Nothing means more to me than what we share, no-one in this whole world can ever compare, last night the way you moved is still on my mind, angel, angel, of mine”) and sublime, understated ad-libs: “You came into my life (my life) sent from above (mmm), better than a dream such a perfect love (perfect love)”. The focus here – quite rightly – is on Eternal’s sheer quality as singers away from the more heightened balladry of songs like I Am Blessed and Someday. Which is not to say there aren’t still technically impressive moments contained within Angel Of Mine, like the stirring run that culminates with Easther’s higher register: “I never knew I could feel each moment, as if it were new, every breath I take or vow that I make, I want to share it with yo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ou”.
The music video for Angel Of Mine wouldn’t necessarily have raised suspicions of a division between Eternal; though, in hindsight, it’s very noticeable that they barely appear on-screen together. Of course, it could be entirely coincidental, but given the context of this single accompanying an album intended to mark the group’s achievements, that would be an unusual directorial decision. The video itself is thoroughly pleasant and features Eternal in what looks like a stately home (though not much of it is shown) while gazing pensively down the camera or off into the distance. There’s a slightly oversaturated quality to the aesthetic, which makes it feel suitably hazy and heavenly, as well as an attempt to craft a narrative showing a mother-daughter relationship in the past and present. That idea never seems fully formed enough to make it entirely clear what’s happening but does reaffirm what Eternal wanted Angel Of Mine to represent, and it wasn’t a teen love song. When the group finally appear together next to a fireplace, the framing is noticeably awkward. Easther is standing up; Vernie is sitting at waist height, and Kéllé seems to be practically on the floor, which speaks volumes of the hierarchical group dynamic and surely can’t have been fortuitous.
Angel Of Mine went on to peak at #4 in the UK, selling around 250,000 copies in total, proving that five years into their career – and now overlapping with the Spice Girls – Eternal still had strong commercial and radio appeal. Their Greatest Hits album debuted at #3 several weeks later before rising to a peak of #2 and remaining in the top 10 throughout the festive period and into the new year. EMI did take a bit of a risk in curtailing Before The Rain, but they timed it to perfection, particularly since they wouldn’t have had another chance like this. Over in America, every instinct Clive Davis had about Angel Of Mine was proven correct when Monica released her version in late 1998 (with the original lyrics reinstated). The following year it became her third consecutive #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent four weeks at the summit. The track also appeared in the UK chart (evidently, Monica did not have the same territory restrictions imposed), but it was a fruitless endeavour. Angel Of Mine peaked at #55 for her, ensuring Eternal’s was the definitive reading of the song. In the UK, at least.
Taking the situation with two versions of the track at face value, it did seem at the time that a potential hit single in America had slipped through Eternal’s fingers. However, the reality is they were fortunate to have recorded Angel Of Mine at all, given Clive Davis could, presumably, have made it difficult – if not declined – for them to do so. It was an unusual strategy, but one that ultimately worked for the track; Monica didn’t have Eternal’s profile in the UK, and they didn’t have hers in America, so neither was likely to replicate the success. Furthermore, even if Eternal had, through some circumstance, taken Angel Of Mine to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was unlikely to heal the rift between the group and alter the sequence of events that followed. A second single from the greatest hits – Might As Well Be Me – was cancelled, and the inevitable split rumours intensified. Even so, Eternal continued to perform together while EMI gave repeated assurances that work had begun on new material. However, less than a year after Angel Of Mine, Kéllé Bryan received that infamous fax stating her services were no longer required; Vernie and Easther Bennett were about to go it alone.
Despite the haste with which Eternal’s greatest hits was pulled together (less than five months after I Wanna Be The Only One reached #1) and the hurdles they faced in recording Angel Of Mine, the result is about as perfect a single – and celebration of their career – as there could have been. So, it’s worth making the point that Eternal’s legacy deserves to be remembered with far more stature than it usually is. All too often, the ’90s are viewed through a revisionist prism where girl groups didn’t exist before the Spice Girls. But they did. Eternal were incredibly successful, selling over a million copies of their debut album – the first girl group ever to do so in the UK – and racking up 14 consecutive top 20 singles (only two of which missed the top ten). They were a consistent chart staple for five years and, in their own way, pushed boundaries and challenged convention as a visible female act at a time when male pop stars dominated the industry.