Of all the million lights in the starry sky of celeb-dom, Cheryl’s has always burned brightest. A fairytale of a life that has held strong in the face of countless detractors, industry machinations and personal heartache. Much has been made of how A Million Lights has had a far longer gestation period than Cheryl’s previous two solo efforts, and by association, must surely be of a higher standard. Both 3 Words and Messy Little Raindrops were proficient exercises in contemporary pop, commercial to a T, and with the resulting sales figures to back up Cheryl’s status as national sweetheart.
But on A Million Lights, where the will.i.am intrusions are kept to a minimum (the grinding dub rhythms of Craziest Things) and Lana Del Rey features on the writing credits (Ghetto Baby), it feels like this is the logical culmination of everything Cheryl has been fine-tweaking ever since she first donned that military outfit for Fight For This Love. It’s been a long old war of attrition in Camp Cole, but on A Million Lights, it’s a resolute mission accomplished; an end-product that both the casual fan and most die-hard ‘soldier’ will enjoy.
With the pressure of her former role as X Factor judge no longer hanging heavy on her shoulders, Under The Sun serves as a thrillingly carefree album opener, all jaunty piano riffs and frat party chants. As one of Cole’s own co-writes, it’s hard not to read into the flippant breeziness of lyrics like “I got paid today, is this really my life, now that I’m over you… I can finally feel alive”. In interviews, she might pointedly distance herself from any deeper meaning to the words, but truth be told, it’s the way lines like these resonate so closely to Cole’s own life that bolsters the album’s cohesiveness and marks it out as a body of work that sounds fundamentally like ‘her’. Listening to A Million Lights is like breathing in every aspect of Cheryl’s L’Oreal-scented life, and it’s all the better for it – after all, when we buy into a pop star, we buy into them wholesale.
In terms of playing to current trends, Cheryl’s music is as on point as ever – a pick and mix of trends to match her appropriation of magazine style pages. Dubstep backing abounds on Love Killer and unrelenting ode to vanity Girl In The Mirror; a snippy, biting assault that along with Wretch 32 collab Screw You, posits Cheryl as the feistiest she’s ever been in her solo recording career. Everything pulses with a live-wire vigour, each song precisely calibrated to swing effortlessly from one hook to another, an in-the-moment juggling act of pop precision that plays to win from start to finish. Previous Cole efforts at times felt like a brace of singles bolstered up by an entourage of pretenders; here, there’s a genuine six or so tracks that already sound like potential radio smashes.
Sidling up to the femme fatale of the moment, Ghetto Baby – lyrically – is classic Lana Del Rey; a beat-heavy number woven from kisses, stilettos and sultry speak-singing. Dance stormer Sexy Den A Mutha and Calvin Harris mega-anthem Call My Name see Cheryl in full-on temptress mode, a force of sheer sexual energy to easily rival anything off Rihanna‘s latest album.
And then there’s Cheryl’s paean to organ transplants, Mechanics Of The Heart, quite possibly one of the finest tracks she’s ever put her name to. With a stratospheric chorus in tow, the song stretches the album’s broader dubstep meddling to its most assured, epic limits, matching it to neat internal lyricism: “if I don’t know procedures, how am I meant to proceed?” Across the whole of A Million Lights, it’s there in degrees, but in the stadium-scale Mechanics Of The Heart, the record achieves what it feels like it set out to do – stand as the final, most accomplished, part in Cheryl’s solo triptych. And all in time for that Girls Aloud re-union…