All Saints had two lifespans, yet still only released 10 singles. All 10 of those singles had something to offer — for them, it was quality, not quantity. ‘I Know Where It’s At’ was funky and sassy, working as their perfect introduction to the pop world. ‘Never Ever’ is their huge winter ballad and it felt like a classic as soon as it came out. ‘Bootie Call’ was a sultry R&B single that competed with any of the best R&B groups of the late 90s (Destiny’s Child, TLC). Most impressively, they made Red Hot Chilli Peppers sound tolerable with their inspired cover of ‘Under the Bridge’. ‘Black Coffee’ lives in the shadows of some of these bigger singles, but it’s always been my favourite.
‘Black Coffee’ came eight months after the release of the brilliant ‘Pure Shores’ which showed the success of their first album wasn’t a fluke. When ‘Black Coffee’ arrived, anticipation was high as ‘Pure Shores’ was still the best-selling single of the year so far. It was an easy number one for them. Fifteen years on, ‘Black Coffee’ doesn’t sound like a conventional hit single.
The song was produced by William Orbit. His profile was at an all-time high — thanks to his excellent work on Madonna’s Ray of Light album. Orbit helped ‘Black Coffee’ have the same lush atmospherics that made ‘Pure Shores’ satisfying, without repeating the formula. Instead of drifting in with gorgeous synths as ‘Pure Shores’ did, ‘Black Coffee’ starts with squelchy synths that sound cold and don’t naturally connect to the rest of the song.
The mood instantly lifts as they coo, “Each moment is new, freeze the moment,” which acts as a smooth contrast to the introduction. Then comes one of the most beautiful choruses music has to offer as they all sing, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here”. There’s a mix of contentment and honesty when they follow that with, “I wouldn’t want to take everything out on you, although I know I do”. The layered vocals and harmonies create a gorgeous and wistful feel that emphasizes the bittersweet nature of the lyrics. ‘Black Coffee’ gets its title from the lines, “brush your teeth and pour a cup of black coffee out. I love to watch you do that every day, the little things that you do”. Shazney Lewis makes the most mundane activities sound romantic. This is a song that describes the nature of being in a relationship — mainly appreciating the good moments, whilst also anticipating the bad.
‘Black Coffee’ could end at the four-minute mark as the keyboards fade off into the distance. Instead the fade acts as a fake ending and the hard intro returns with guitars building, giving the song an unexpected conclusion. It takes the feel of the song from beautifully hypnotic to slightly unnerving in a matter of seconds. Lana Del Rey might well have been listening to this as inspiration for her 2014 single, ‘West Coast’, which has a similar disconnect in structure and use of those warm trademark William Orbit synths on the chorus.
‘Black Coffee’ was All Saints’ fifth and final number one single. It felt like the moment they could be the biggest band in the country, but sadly it proved the end of their first incarnation. Arguments about lead vocals on this song played a part in the band’s falling out. Although they managed another hit single with the underrated ‘Rock Steady’ in 2006, the sales of the accompanying comeback album showed that the record-buying public weren’t heavily invested in their future. Rumours of a new album have been floating around this year. I’d welcome them back if they could create another moment as special as ‘Black Coffee’.