With Cheryl Cole having reached the apex of her particular fairytale upon her elevation to international pop princess, spare a thought for her Girls Aloud colleagues still at home raking the embers. With Nadine Coyle’s solo career having been nixed before it even got off the ground through an ill-conceived exclusive deal with supermarket giants Tesco, it fell to Nicola Roberts to prove on her own terms that pale is, in fact, more interesting. While Cinderella’s Eyes is by no means a game-changer in the pop world, it succeeds at least in making a more engaging claim to the pop crown than either Cole or Coyle. After a so-so opening with the admirably obnoxious ‘Beat Of My Drum’ and the disjointed ‘Lucky Day’, Roberts lets the veil fall. Listing a litany of woes – her own insecurities, displacement, resentment at being subject to the whims of others, an endless parade of ‘fakers’, mean girls, industry executives, backstabbing, vaulting ambition, superficiality, disingenuousness and the inability to speak openly and honestly – against a relentless, incongruously chirpy off-kilter electro pulse and drum machine pounding, studded with the odd Feminism 101 slogan (“Makeup is make-believe”), it’s like finding extracts from The Bell Jar slipped inside a copy of Heat.
A squidgily skipping and loping dissection of fairytale dynamics, the title track concludes that a self-reliant, disillusioned heroine is better off than one with any faith in storybook salvation, and from there on in the album is a twitchy disco downward spiral. Aside from a softly glistening cover of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’, the album’s main moment of muted musicality comes with ‘I’, which Roberts has called her “funeral song”. Treading similar ground to Lily Allen’s superior ‘The Fear’, it lacks Allen’s way with a knowingly hard-bitten vocal prowl but attempts an equally sullen, all-encompassing socio-cultural critique with a self-aware nod to the commercial benefits of such an edgy ‘new direction’. ‘Say It Out Loud’ euphorically universalises this malaise (“All across the nation / put your hands up if you’re faking”), making a gently revolutionary plea for an outbreak of mass honesty. And on the madly bombastic standout stomp of ‘Gladiator’, Roberts nonchalantly – and with a touch of masochistic glee – compares arena shows to the horrors of the Roman amphitheatre.
Celebrities have of course traditionally spent at least as much time and effort bemoaning the burdens of doing what they do as actually doing it, but Cinderella’s Eyes sounds genuinely world-weary. Maybe this existentialist angst is merely a pose, taking its cue from the current conviction that we live in less than ideal times, and that consequently a reflection of our own default disconsolate moodiness is a more valuable pop gimmick than escapist optimism. Or maybe Roberts is as sincere in her off-message perspective as she sounds. Given her spot-on dissatisfaction with the artistic and aesthetic pressures faced by women performers in particular, it’s unfortunate that Roberts’ vocals on this album are often blandly insubstantial, steamrollered to a thin under-emotive squeal in what could be an ironic demonstration of the very lack of power and presence which she laments in her lyrics. This tendency means that some of the potential strength behind the songs’ lyrical punches gets pulled. It also means that, despite her homicidal stepping-up on ‘Gladiator’, the album sounds the very opposite of threatening or subversive. Cinderella’s Eyes is almost predestined to be lauded as harmlessly edgy leftfield pop, when it actually contains something far more brittle, bitter and unsettling enough to make you hope that Roberts might eventually be capable of picturing a happy ending.
[A&M; September 23, 2011]