Dance-pop juggernaut Steps was put together following an advertisement in The Stage in 1997, with Claire Richards, Lisa Scott-Lee, Faye Tozer, Lee Latchford-Evans and Ian ‘H’ Watkins the final line-up. The techno-lite and country pop fluff of first single 5,6,7,8 peaked at Number 14, yet the band were permitted to release more music. Scott-Lee would later be less fortunate when her subsequent solo career stalled after her second single fell just shy of the Top 10.
As Pete Waterman steered the outfit in a more Abba-esque direction, the group was transformed from pop Dairylea into hit baked camembert. Following stellar chart success, cracks appeared and invited the inevitable duo and solo endeavours. Steps reunited for a (tepid) Christmas album in 2012, but then in 2017 released Tears On The Dancefloor, an album surprisingly full of red-hot bangers. Was it their last hurrah?
There are indications afoot that it was not. If ever a year needed a lethal dose of optimism, then it is 2020, and Steps’ sixth album What The Future Holds provides that in spades. The title track is like a James Bond gadget designed to slay the anxiety and darkness of coronavirus. Penned by Sia and Greg Kurstin, this pulsating and edgy pop slap is everything, hinting at a slight sonic influence from Dua Lipa‘s Physical.
The tone shifts almost immediately with the unapologetic Abba blueprint of Something In Your Eyes, a sonic sentiment echoed on the disco shimmer of Heartbreak In The City and the twinkly Come And Dance With Me, with echoes of their own massive hit Summer Of Love. There are some classic pop-dance Steps moments in the euphoric One Touch and the uplifting feel of To The Beat Of My Heart has hints of The Saturdays at their best – indeed, Mollie King has a writing credit here. To The One starts off like Bananarama‘s Venus, then incorporates the synth of Heart by the Pet Shop Boys to create a retro gem.
Steps tend to shine when the tone turns a little darker and edgier, with Deeper Shade Of Blue being a case in point, and this provides for a couple of thrilling surprises. Clouds has a wonderful William Orbit undertone in the intro, echoing his The Power Of Goodbye with Madonna from Ray Of Light, but the song then builds into a celestial and harmonic chorus. Father’s Eyes explores this ethereal sound further in the intro before weaving into a thumping electronica backbone. It’s refreshing is to hear all of the band members opening songs or having solo verses, lending a more balanced and collaborative feel.
There are also some welcome ballads in the mix. Hold My Heart is a heavy piano-driven affair with some of the band’s best vocals. Under My Skin is silky and smooth, and features the pan pipes from the ’80s Turkish Delight advert – it should not work, yet absolutely does. Indeed one of the album’s more reflective songs Don’t You Leave Us Halfway seems to deal with the growing pains of the band throughout the years and proves a memorable moment.
The set closes with the album version of the title track, which has a more reflective ending to the single version, and perhaps we are invited to ponder what the future holds for the band. In a world where people are judged or shamed for their musical tastes on social media, it’s rather refreshing to hear Steps revelling so exultantly in the unashamedly feel-good aspect of their sound. What The Future Holds is a canny mix of the dance-pop of the Steps of yore, the Abba-like harmonies with key changes, and the big ballads with some welcome nuance in the atmospheric and electronica flourishes. A bold and brilliant album.