There comes a point when it just becomes too tiring, doesn’t it? It has dragged on for too long; the fights are cyclical, consistent only in their awfulness; you’re both exhausted, almost every waking moment with them seems like it could collapse; you love them but everything about them and everything they do raises flashes of annoyance and hate; and the physical things you share – the apartment, the room, the bed – feel oppressive. And you just want it to stop. Not the whole relationship, you’re not ready for that yet, but just the endlessness of the painful, corrosive misery. You want some peace, a respite, a truce.
“Can We Call A Truce” singlehandedly justifies Catfights and Spotlights’, and 3.0’s, existence. It’s a singularly self-contained, flawless accomplishment, which most importantly, breaks almost entirely new ground for the band in all respects. In the songwriting, it takes the specific and the universal directions found separately in the band’s balladry before and combines them both comprehensively. In the performances, it provides a set of vocal performances heard in registers uncharted by the band before. And in its tenor, it creates a mood piece the band had rarely approached before: dejected, defeated and pleading, with exhaustion filling every bit of its crevices – the rainy window, the crackling phone call, the scribbled note on the counter, all in one.
Part of the way the band’s songwriting has evolved by this point is in how they make a return of sorts to anecdote-flecked storytelling, something the band started off with in One Touch before moving onto less specific and more universal writing during most of 2.0’s reign. Here, having lived through the years between the mid-teens and the early twenties, the anectodes correspond; trying to find wisdom in magazines; making a rapprochement with the lover’s ex you were never too fond of; trying to bat off his sleazy friend. In the choruses, the song returns to less particular, but with a deft touch there too. “We both have our truths” – a wisdom that seems all the more profound in its weariness – and the dejected trailing off in “And I just wish this God damn mess...” Your hand automatically rising to run through your hair.
The crux of it is a battle to be right that the narrator no longer wishes to take part in – “I know I'm not right” and “Was I wrong all the while or were you just not right?” – and consistently throughout, the plea to stop fighting which turns into a kind of sad desperation. There’s an element of guilt there, an unsaid acknowledgement that perhaps there was more wrong on the side of the narrator, because the imploring may not be this insistent otherwise. Throughout as well, the repetition of what it should be – “we’re supposed to be side by side” – that has the narrator taking up the role of mediator in the same relationship they are part of, as you so often do. In short, the song traverses the entire emotional vista of a relationship’s wearying conclusion.
The vocal performances are superlative. Heidi’s cool, cracking voice, softly matter-of-fact, just after tears and still riddled with doubt. Keisha, in wise command, not pushing her voice so as to upset the song’s delicate balance, reserving her fire just for the middle eight. And finally Amelle, turning in her finest performance as a Sugababe, being in frightening control of her voice to be nothing less than romantically wistful. Up to that point, and even after, her voice would appear to work best on midtempo bops; this is one of the few instances where she has been afforded the opportunity to test herself on a slower tempo with different tonal requirements – and she excels emphatically.
In all these ways, “Can We Call A Truce” sets a new, different bar for the band, joining an exclusive set since the début comprising “Freak Like Me”, “Stronger”, “Maya” and “Ace Reject” which have all sounded like nothing else the band had produced up to that point. As an album closer, it is even more fitting. In the two categories of Sugababes album closers, great and phenomenal, this falls in the latter camp, holding toe to toe with “Run For Cover” and “Maya” in the closing stakes. Just as those two songs make emphatic statements about the band and make their respective albums click, so does this. And just like those songs, it ends the album on a note of uncertainty, things poised on the edge. Put your best lyricism and most interesting vocal performances right at the end then, queens.
Even more broadly, “Can We Call A Truce” feels like it has significance beyond itself. Given what came after, and the bitter disappointment of the directions signalled in Catfights being completely eschewed, it’s almost instinctive for fans of the band to consider this as its final sign off. It would make a beautiful swansong if so, being not only a resounding reiteration of the band’s talent and accomplishment over a decade and over many changes, but also being a fitting rejoinder of sorts to the band’s public image. Of course, the heartbreak focussed songs any pop act would indulge in would provide much fodder for the internal conflict any such act is likely to have, allowing much to be read into songs. But for a band with as much strife as the Sugababes, it is difficult to not read into “Can We Call A Truce”, even on a surface level. That is given a bitter edge given that the hoped for ‘truce’ never did eventuate, the band imploding barely a year later. In that sense, the middle eight with Keisha and Amelle trading lines – “We're supposed to be side by side / All I wanna do is set things right” – feels so very poignant.
mrdonut (10) stanned from day one, dammit! “This was a complete revelation during my first play of Catfights. The vocals from all three are beautifully downcast at points. Amelle is brilliantly subdued in the chorus and Heidi is hauntingly effective. This is an overlooked Sugababes classic.” tylerc904 (10) gay gasps, “Unbelievable. All three girls give career-high performances on this one. The lyrics are gorgeous, and the whole thing is a masterclass on how to do understated.”
Clusters of all y’all picked out each of the girls as being the best, which is a sign that they were all on form. P'NutButter (9.5) is floored by Amelle, “Amelle is the star of this track, who'd have thunk it?!” Chanex (8) also warms to the Moroccan chanteuse, “It's so honest and real sounding and the arrangement is super symphonic and dramatic. Amelle is really the heart of this one huh?” At the Quiche table, kal (10) declares that it’s “The absolute best vocal performance by all three. The bloopy beat and strings in the instrumental carry the song very well. Keisha owns her verses and shines lyrically. She really grew on this album.”
Solenciennes (10) meanwhile stans Aunt Margaret, “Heidi has the best bits of this song, the production is so well done, their voices are so crisp and sharp and Heidi’s delivery of her lines is supreme. “I wrote a list of my demands” is such a vivid opening line, again, can’t praise the songwriters enough for their efforts here. Amelle’s wistful delivery is worth mentioning too and the “if we can’t reconcile then can we just not fight…” section sends shivers down my spine, it’s a fantastic album closer (ignoring the Taio Cruz mess and acoustic “About You Now”) and I wish this had been given some high profile live outings to display how great it is. This album captures a brilliant sound and a mixed bag of emotions so effortlessly and stands out as the most cohesive, impressive album of their discography for me, its main shortcoming is the lack of obvious singles to sell the album to the public but they should be proud of this song and the rest of the album as a body of work.” xondus (10) calls it “One of their finest moments to me. I love Heidi’s vocals on this. Catfights really was a great and cohesive album, just a shame about *that* awful lead single.” Blayke (10) only has to shade Amelle a little while longer, “This song is a solid 10. The message, the sound and OMM (Oh my Mutya!) Heidi sounds the best she ever has on this song. I wonder if this another song that they hate but we love. It sounds like a distant relative of ‘Ace Reject’. This song is a beautiful letter burying the hatchet. I’m glad Keisha didn’t write her parts with Mutya in mind because Amelle would have had another breakdown!” uno (9.5) is also onboard SS Heidi, “Heidi's verse stands out as my favorite part of the song. She sounds perfectly sweet, lovely, and slightly timid – which is classic Heidi, but it works especially well within this song. Fantastic song.”
PCDPG (9) looks outside to the grey wetness, and draws their chinchilla blanket in close, “A gorgeous album closer. But I have to be in a certain mood for it. Sad, raining outside, a little darkness. They all sound amazing.” DJHazey (9) just wants everyone to get along and leave his faves alone, “I think the forum could use this song some days. I hope people gave this one a chance to wrap its arms around them and be embraced by its soothing message and heartwarming sound.” “I'm a sucker for a good string section in a pop song, and the strings are used really well here - they're a big part of why this song is such a lovely closer to the main part of Catfights. This goes nicely into the acoustic version of "About You Now", but I wish the UK edition had been allowed to end like this rather than shoehorning "She's Like A Star" on the end - it would have allowed the album to slow down and stop on a lovely mellow note.,” writes londonrain (8.5), reminding us all of the horrors of Taio Cruz. Jam (9) pinpoints one of the many lyrical sleights here, “’I met your ex and she advised to wise up and to make nice, I always thought she was a bore, but that’s another story’ is fantastic and one of my favourite Suga lyrics.” berserkerboi (8) call it “By far the best track on Catfights so I am glad it is the last of them remaining. If this could have been a blue print for where 3.0 were going and we got this caliber going forward... The potential and talent was there, but the decisions were not great in not releasing this as a single and following it on with strong ballads on the next record..."
Man, it must be nice living in Haters’ Mansion on Shady Lane for Mina (5) who moans “Energy-less”. Deborux (4) also takes out a mortgage two doors down, spewing that it’s “trying too hard to be heartfelt.” Slightly more enlightened is CasuallyCrazed (6) who has no time for lyrical depth, “The lyrics are convoluted and meandering, but it serves as a nice final cool down.” ohnostalgia (6.5) is surprisingly mixed on this, “After throwing Catfights so many high scores I cannot believe my lowest rated song on the album is the last standing. I appreciate what they're going for here, but the speak singing is a rare vocal misfire for me.” CorgiCorgiCorgi (7) withers that it’s “Sappy but pleasant.” Filler (7) hugs his PS1 close, “That instrumental sounds like something from the first Rayman game, specifically a Picture City level I reckon. I mean, it's not as much of a bop as the opening track of Pink Plant Woods, but what is?”
Back in civilisation, Robinho#1 (10) wryly comments that this is the “Picture-perfect anthem for the inner fandoms line up war.” Constantino (10) gets a bit mushy, “Um… well this is emotional. I am absolutely living for the solemnness of this track; the orchestral/electro-pop production is impeccable. I usually don’t like Heidi’s vocals (fight me), but when the production is so light and gentle, the weakness is really apt. Question: Was this Keisha’s apology for all the years of ‘bullying’?” I mean maybe? You can read whatever you want into it.
Runawaywithme (10) has nothing but the warmest praise, “A simply gorgeous ballad, the lyrics one again are stunning and emotive. The strings and subtle electronics fit the song and its message so well and the melodies they play just get to me. I think that Heidi’s verse is such a lovely moment as her delivery is beautiful and soft and it’s like she’s really caught in the situation and it really sounds like she’s trying to find some hope in a hopeless situation, a place we have all been. It’s just such a good break up song that can be applied to so many situations and its sung and produced beautifully (the harmonies are some of the best I think I have heard in a pop song) it’s such a great closing number for an equally great album.” acl (10) is losing it bit by bit, “I feel my love for this album has got out of hand and can find no more words to justify all the 10’s.” lalaclairi_ (10) finds that it’s “An amazing closing song.”
Ironheade (9) puts the writing up on the wall beautifully, “An excellent coda for one of the greatest girl bands ever to be, with one of their most elegantly sad ballads. (No, there was no seventh album, what are you talking about?) The slow AC-type beat and sighing strings have a really deep, rich feel to them that lift the song above its surface simplicity, and once again, the girls give some of their best vocal performances. Amelle's cracked and broken vocals are quite magnificent, and this may well be her finest moment as a Sugababe. Not that Keisha and Heidi don't pick up the slack too – Heidi's vocals may not be at their best technically here, but there's a serious emotional honesty to her wracked delivery that tugs on the heartstrings quite effectively, and where Keisha sounds like she's making the greatest effort not to get hurt, but yet it bleeds through anyway. Not as technically well-composed as some of the Sugaballads - but a cut above in pure feeling.” stopthestatic (10) is in the same eulogic mood, “I ADORE IT. One of their best. The strings are beautiful, and I actually friggin’ love Amelle’s voice on this track? (not usually my favourite). It’s nice to imagine a scenario in which this and Sound of Goodbye concluded their discography. We’d have a tight, brilliant six-album run from the Sugababes. It’s all downhill from here unfortunately… sigh. Perfect song, perfect album closer, and musically it really feels like the end of an era for the Babes.”
Oh y’all want another Jonathan27 (10) fix? Get your glasses and tissues out, “The last three songs on Catfights and Spotlights may be the best ever run of tracks on any Sugababes album. As “Sound of Goodbye’ is the final sigh of exhaustion and defeat, “Can We Call a Truce” is a fragile ceasefire. It comes together throughout the song: from how delicately Amelle handles the chorus to how Keisha’s verse feels like realization come too late, to Heidi’s verge of tears delivery on her verse. It’s the feeling of being so drained of anger that hatred becomes regret, as words become consequences and we're driven further away from those we care about. The details interwoven in the song bring this to life even further: speaking to your ex’s ex in an unsettling mutual understanding, running into their friends after you’ve broken up and feeling even more distant from them, trying to figure out what you need to say and when you need to say it, how everything you read brings you back to the same person. One of the Sugababes' greatest strengths has been their ability to relate greater feelings into anecdotal understanding, and it is here as the closer to their last great album where it truly feels conclusive. There is peace in understanding when to let go.” Just let it go.
Finally, we have a pair of 11s to bless and consecrate this masterpiece. First it’s sweet Voodoo who gives this their only non-10 score for the album, and is on the floor screaming “A SONG. A MISSED OPPORTUNITY, COULD HAVE BEEN A CLASSIC.” But it is a classic, hun, at least amongst us gorls. And then we have the lovely Elysium, who signs off that “Catfights is one of my favourite girlband and babes albums, and this song is one of, if not THE main reason why. Everyone on it sounds so beautiful and it just works. Keisha sounds amazing, Heidi's light vocals work so well with the song and the lyrics and Amelle really does own the chorus. I've always had 2.0 as my fave lineup and always will, but this is one of their only songs where I feel it wouldn't have kept the same magic had Mutya's more huskier vocals been in Amelle's place. It'll probably get shafted in the rate by inferior album tracks, but it will always be Top 10 in my heart <3.” <3
Catfights has had the strangest trajectory for an album in this rate (exactly how strange will be even clearer at the conclusion). Just four (of twelve) tracks outside the Top 50 and a full half the album remaining by the Top 30, only for the whole album to crash out before the Top 15. But it’s almost befitting an album whose strength is as a collective whole, with just a pair of singles that are not particular highlights within the album, overshadowed as they are by a series of satisfying album cuts. It’s especially gratifying to have them recognised by you all, and for the album to be validated as a wholly worthy effort.
The strangeness of the album’s placement in the rate is doubly fitting because it is a strange album. It makes little sense within the band’s discography, sounding unlike they had done before or since and thus lacking the musical ties to link it to the band’s trajectory like all their other albums. It is the taking of a particular sound palette, retro R&B/neo-soul, and fleshing it out in a myriad exciting ways. Bold, brassy instrumentation, noisy and audacious on occasion but restrained and understated where required. It proves the band’s musical versatility in volumes, and adds further degrees to its dizzying range.
If there is a tie to the rest of the band’s canon, it’s in the album’s mature, deeply considered songwriting. It delves on nuance upon nuance – seeking commitment on the condition of respect in “Side Chick”; allowing onself to take the plunge in “Unbreakable Heart”; vacillating in the few seconds before breaking a heart in “Sound Of Goodbye”; and all the crevices of a weary plea in "Truce". Lest that be too serious or dour a plate, flashes of inventive playfulness – the paean to a deadbeat in “You On A Good Day”, the rolodex of male corpses in “Every Broken Heart”; and the vampy red flag waving of “Beware”. And scattered throughout, turns of phrase that stick viscously to the mind: “what good is an unbreakable heart?”; “I don't wanna fight with you but I don't wanna fight for you”; “Was I wrong all the while or were you just not right?”
As I have emphasised continuously, through both these aspects, of a singular sound and advanced songwriting, Catfights is a true analogue to One Touch. If there’s any disappointment I have, it’s that the voters as a collective weren’t quite on board with this interpretation, discarding the body of One Touch much more readily than that of Catfights, and conversely disposing of the absolute highs on the latter from getting too far into the upper reaches of the results – both beyond what the albums merited. This seems very much to have been borne out of lineup loyalties, and perhaps an inability or unwillingness to appreciate the distinct sonic directions of both albums.
Just as that album stamped its creators’ identity, so does Catfights. But on the second album of its third (and much maligned) lineup, this task was even more important. They succeed in every measure, allowing each member’s distinctive personality to emerge, and for their combined persona to be projected as assured, thoughtful and very much a cohesive entity. Three poised, thoughtful and classy women, slicing through life. Just as the band started off then. That they did this against a backdrop of those real or assumed catfights is all the more impressive. This adds a final sheen to what is a singular, consummate and unexpectedly delightful effort.
Catfights then, is a self-contained universe unto itself. And how stellar it is.
Aw, boo. I seriously did not think that Catfights would be the second album out... sigh.
OK, yeah. "Never Gonna Dance Again" is great, but it's looking a bit out of place now. (But then again... a Xenomania tears-on-the-dancefloor bop? Its position is no surprise - it's a forum gay's dream!)
I can't decide if I'm more shocked that I'm not in the Top 10 Catfights voters or that Truce is the most beloved song from the album! Overall I can't complain; Side Chick and Unbreakable Heart did better than I could realistically have expected and they're for sure what I care the most about. Sound of Goodbye should have been more appreciated and Girls was just plain done dirty but in the spirit of Truce I'll let it all go. (Even the always-annoying fact that Heidi looks a little deranged on the C&S cover.) Oh @beyoncésweave thanks again for this amazing rate! xoxo
An incredible album, all in all. I can't believe it's out before Change and Angels with Dirty Faces (their two weakest albums, barring LP Which Shall Not Be Named) but I'm guessing it's average score will be higher.
Not surprised that Catfights is the second album out (its highest highs don't match the highest highs on the first five albums), but it's a shame we seem to be having a cull of Sugaballads lately.
Truce is lovely (and fully deserves its status as the winner of this album), but the "back on scratch" bit always sounded slightly odd to me. Surely it would work better as "back to scratch", which is the actual expression?
(Also, @beyoncésweave - this is the wrong version of my commentary for this one.) [EDIT: Thanks!]
Can We Call A Truce is far from my favourite on the album, but I'm glad a track from Catfights did that well. I wish the album overall had done a little bit better in the rankings, but I guess it isn't that surprising.