Three comprehensively cements the Sugababes as a pop entity and a musical force. The album is a varied, expansive and polished showcase of the band’s musical leanings, songwriting skills and vocal abilities that puts forward the argument, in the most emphatic way, that this is a pop act at the height of its powers.
The Three era is unquestionably the Sugababes’ golden age. The songs produced during the period, both on the album and outside it, take R&B as a genre and run its entire breadth, in dizzyingly exciting ways. There are straight up bangers (“Hole In The Head”, “Whatever Makes You Happy”, “Who”), lowkey midtempos (“Situation’s Heavy”), soulful power ballads (“Too Lost In You”, “Conversation’s Over”) and quiet heartbreakers (“Maya”). The album matches this production-wise, with grimy R&B, expert whiplash-inducing splicing courtesy of Xenomania, trip-hop influences, classical balladry and elements of soul creeping in.
The album’s central gimmick, with the three girls having a solo song each, is carried through largely well. Keisha manages to provide Three’s most poppy moment in “Whatever Makes You Happy” and Mutya, unexpectedly, its most emotionally searing moment in the stunning “Maya”. Heidi’s effort, however, is unfortunately a rather maudlin ballad that pales somewhat next to both her bandmates’ efforts and the album’s trifecta of exemplary ballads (“Caught In A Moment”/”Conversation’s Over”/”Too Lost In You”). But the solo tracks nevertheless do their job of reminding listeners that the band’s members are an exceptionally talented trio, as skilled and impressive individually as they are together. In particular, they underline what strong songwriters and vocalists the girls have grown to become, adding to the album’s vigour.
If I have any criticism of Three, it’s that the band and its management/label didn’t quite know what to do with the wealth of material on the table. The final album feels like it was a compromise between leaning towards the mainstream, in both opting for some poppier, more easily-digestible directions and in deciding to put out a long album with some inevitable filler. As a result, some cuts that are quite interesting in terms of either theme or production – in particular “Who”, “Someone In My Bed” and “Like The Weather” – are left off the album; and some dull (mercifully few) fillers are included ("We Could Have it All”,” Sometimes”). The opportunity was there to either make a lean, all-killer-no-filler album (by eliminating the aforementioned filler) or to make an album truly representative of the era’s dynamism (by including the aforementioned B-sides). In addition, there was definitely opportunity to streamline the tracklisting; on occasion the frequent banger to ballad switches come off as incongruent (to an extent of course, this was unavoidable given the album’s variety, and it at least forestalls any dull stretches).
Despite all this, however, the album is a landmark, both for the Sugababes and for girlband albums in general. The album truly cemented the band’s transition into a fiercely confident outfit; its self assurance stretches from giving middle fingers to everyone from fuckboys (“Hole In The Head”) to the music industry (“Whatever Makes You Happy”). This is complemented by comedowns that detail being completely lost in love (“Caught In A Moment”, “Too Lost In You”) to emotional catharsis (“Conversation’s Over”) to processing grief (“Maya”). This thematic range, backed up by its musical range, truly makes the album a comprehensive statement of what a pop album could really be.
In a broader sense, that a girlband could make a record that could simultaneously feel like a greatest hits, just three albums in (when will anyone but the Spice Girls, really?) was a revelation. I still remember what an incredible rush it was to see them during this absolute reign: fucking it up on the “Hole In The Head” video; struttinglike queens on the “Too Lost In You” video; and delightfully counterbalancing this smooth package in all their public appearances; with bubbly, enthusiastic Heidi; serious and shady Keisha; and barely-keeping-it-together Mutya. It all felt effortless, thrilling, and still, unnervingly fresh. These were the cool girls; the ones you were slightly fearful of and looked up to. The ones who could beat you up mercilessly and equally listen to your worries patiently as you all cut class and smoked in the school grounds. And somehow, absurdly, you hoped for both.
– – For your consideration: “Whatever Makes You Happy”, “Situation’s Heavy”, “Conversation’s Over”, “Buster”, “Maya”