In the Industrial Revolution of 00s pop, Westlife were the darkest and most satanic of mills, an inexorable manufactory turning out ballads by the yard. When I started Popular the signs their reign was ending weren’t as obvious as they seem in hindsight, and the band’s split, early in 2004 when Bryan McFadden quit to regain his name and his dignity, was a moment for minor celebration. The question of what a “Brian McFadden solo single” might sound like didn’t interest me at all – I’d have taken the safe bet of a soporific MOR slowie. And I would have lost.

A big pop band is a fascinating exercise in game theory. The rewards come through members choosing to co-operate, but if they choose their moment well an individual, a Robbie or a Geri, who opts for non-cooperation can become highly successful. But Westlife were not really like other pop groups. There was no effort to individuate them, no Sporty or Scary Westlife. They were an unthreatening mass of boy whose distinctions were unclear, like a page full of off-white colours in the Dulux catalogue. Brian, like any of the others, didn’t have much to work with beyond “used to be in Westlife”.

So his breakaway had to be more dramatic, and when his first solo single starts out “Bullshit dinners and the free champagne” the strategy is all too clear. Life in Westlife had become a yoke, an unconscionable burden, a restraint on the liberty of the free man Brian McFadden, whose true values had been obscured by his hollow existence as a stool-bound mannequin. But now we’re going to see the inner man, the real Brian.

The origins of “Real For Me” predate Westlife, perhaps even Boyzone. They go back to 1995, and Robbie Williams’ departure from Take That, capped by his lost weekend at Glastonbury ligging with Oasis. You leave the biggest boyband by embracing its hidden reverse, the bad behaviour a pop group’s image can only wink at. Turning this vibe into music wasn’t an easy job for Robbie, and the alchemical moment came when he met Guy Chambers in 1997, whose easy-going pop-rock chops gave a firm grounding to Robbie’s mercurial persona and scattershot post-stardom thoughts. The rest is history (and several Popular entries). And who’s this we see co-writing “Real For Me”? Guy Chambers.

But while the inspiration is clear, Brian McFadden is no Robbie Williams, and Chambers’ job as his songwriting partner and, frankly, branding consultant is a very different one. McFadden has no bad boy reputation, and his audience wouldn’t stand for one. There’s also no Britpop movement for a newly liberated star to glom onto. Instead, “Real For Me” embraces, quite literally, Dadrock. After its ominous piano intro it resolves into a mid-paced AOR chest-beater about hanging out with your kids and watching the match. (Brian’s triumphant yell of “watch football on TV” leads into the record’s climactic moment, an elephantine guitar solo). At the end he has some advice for any listeners who might be tiring of their lives in a million-selling boyband: “Wake up, you might be dreaming”.

You might say this fightback against the dehumanisation of the pop machine is all a bit rich coming from a pop star aiming to continue being a pop star, married to another pop star, about to divorce her to date another pop star, and whose subsequent career has remained firmly on post-popstar celebrity tramlines. I would agree: even if being in Westlife was as dreary as listening to them, the Brian protests too much. On the other hand, we’ve all been ground down by bullshit jobs and wanted a bit of time to ourselves, so while “Real To Me” is a moan, it’s not an alienating one. And Guy Chambers knows what he’s doing – this record has a stronger structure and a better hook than almost any Westlife single. “Robbie, but he’s just a normal bloke” is an unpromising brief and Chambers has done his best to solidify it.

What’s interesting about “Real To Me” is its place in the wider context we’re seeing revealed by 2004’s No.1s, the incursion of Reality TV into the pop marketplace creating a crisis of legitimacy for existing acts, and putting an increased spotlight on the actual process of manufacturing pop. (Or at least, on those parts of it the business was happy admitting to). Ham-handed stabs at authenticity, like Brian McFadden or David Sneddon, are the other side of the knowing metapop of Richard X or Xenomania – both impulses a reaction to a growing sense that the glossy, glassy unreality of Millennium-era stardom isn’t sustainable. But what might replace it is hardly clear.

Score: 3

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