Westlife – ‘When You’re Looking Like That’

A guest blog written by Ed NightingaleYou can agree/disagree with him here.

Song: ‘When You’re Looking Like That’
Artist: Westlife
US chart peak: N/A
Release date: September 19, 2001
Writers: Rami Yacoub, Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin
Producers: Rami Yacoub
Quintessential Max moment: “She’s all dressed up for glamour and rock n roll” *cue guitars*
Video synopsis: A lazy tour video with screaming fans losing their shit

Max Martin wasn’t one to shy away from boybands, so it was somewhat inevitable that he would work with Westlife. Those cheeky Irishmen were well known for their ballads – in fact, they had a record-breaking string of them when their first seven singles all went to Number One – but you can’t build a career solely on rising from a stool at a key change. They needed a Max Martin banger.

Yet ‘When You’re Looking Like That’ was never released as a proper single in the UK, though it did see success in Europe peaking at number 9 in Sweden. Instead, it was nestled on their second album ‘Coast To Coast’ and took on cult status within the band’s ‘oeuvre’, frequently performed on tour (which explains the shoddy video) but eclipsed by their later uptempo tracks ‘Uptown Girl’, ‘World Of Our Own’ and ‘bop’ ‘Bop Bop Baby’.

It was written by Max in 2000, the same year as *NSYNC’s ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’, Britney’s ‘Stronger’ and Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’. Considering this, ‘When You’re Looking Like That’ is typical of his style at this time, continuing his gradual merging of rock and pop.

Those opening guitar chords set it all off, driving through the verses with stadium rock force. And that’s before the “glamour and rock n roll” bit in the second verse that simultaneously allows the guitar to let rip and provides the song’s most memorable moment. It’s pop gold and typical of Max’s playfulness.

Rock elements aside, there are plenty of Maxisms in this track. It’s not hard to imagine the title lyrics being composed first with their spiky consonant rhythms, extending the “that” in echo. That sets the tone of the whole song, the production even dropping out totally at times to emphasise that spiky edge. Then there’s the economy of melody, the whole song consisting of only a handful of ideas thoroughly wrung dry.

But how to replicate that “oh the key’s changing, let’s stand up off our stools” feeling? That’s where the chorus comes in, lurching us into a higher key with its fizzing pop production. It takes the song to a new level at the sudden realisation of what the boys have lost – this is, after all, a rare example of a fun, uptempo break-up song. Listen carefully, too, and you can hear a whirring folky counter melody in a subtle nod to their Irish roots.

It’s a chorus so good that Max ‘et al’ repeat it three times at the end, each time switching up the melody, or adding extra layers of ad-libbing. It’s a trick he employed frequently in his music – look no further than the aforementioned ‘Stronger’ and ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’. And like the latter, there’s cleverly a slight change of chord in the final phrase just to signify the end. It rounds off what is a perfectly constructed pop song.

Still, ‘When You’re Looking Like That’ was ultimately overshadowed by the rest of Westlife’s output, their career ultimately defined by soppy ballads many of which were written at Cheiron Studios. It also wasn’t the first time Max worked with the band – album track ‘I Need You’ from their debut was also written by Max, even though it sounds like a Backstreet Boys reject. With ‘When You’re Looking Like That’, he merged his own production and songwriting style with the needs of the band, providing them with a new sound. For some artists Max defined their entire careers; for others he came and went, leaving behind an under-appreciated banger in the process.

If you’d like to write a guest blog on a Max Martin song that didn’t make the US Top 10 then there’s information on how to do that right here.

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