Come and Get It might be the definitive album of 2000s U.K. chart pop -- even if, perhaps paradoxically, it was a commercial flop, stiffing at number 28 on the British albums chart the week of its release, falling off sharply thereafter, and failing to launch a single higher than number ten on the singles chart. This utterly mediocre performance (in terms of its genre, at least) is astonishing when you consider that the album was masterminded by the finest songwriters and producers in the game (including Richard X, Xenomania, Jewels & Stone, Pascal Gabriel, and Hannah Robinson, who had collectively delivered smashes for Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and countless others) and fronted by one of the nation's prominent sex symbols. But its failure becomes utterly mind-boggling when you actually listen to the thing: it's a collection of 13 thoroughly excellent electronic dance-pop songs (including two alleged "bonus tracks" that seem to appear on all released editions), all of which sound custom-designed to fulfill the "dreams of number one" Stevens sang about in her most successful single to date, 2004's "Some Girls" (which peaked at number two.) That song, which was appended to a re-release of Stevens' similarly excellent and underheralded debut Funky Dory, is generously included here as well, and its Goldfrapp-indebted electro-rock schaffel provides a decent indication of the album's riches, but it's just the tip of the icy synth pop glacier. Making few concessions to the album format -- there's no thematic through-line, and there are no ballads to speak of (though a couple of the songs are too slow to dance to) -- Come and Get It is a marvel of pure pop craftsmanship, boasting inventive, fresh, engrossingly detailed productions, gorgeously layered vocals and synths, huge hooks, and infectious melodies. Sure the singles are tremendous, most notably the swaggering, up-tempo "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)" and the glistening neo-disco of "So Good" -- but the album tracks, nearly without exception, are equally strong, from the swooning, heavenly "I Will Be There" to the funky, Cure-sampling slow jam "All About Me," to the stirring, poignant "Nothing Good About This Goodbye," perhaps the album's most transcendent moment.
Especially in light of its lackluster reception, it comes across as a true labor of love, painstakingly constructed by and for discerning pop true believers, and destined for future pop cult enshrinement. With all this talk of craftsmanship, and all the talent that's on display, it's deceptively easy to overlook Rachel Stevens' role in all of this, to write her off as little more than a faceless, er, pretty face. And it's true that she doesn't present any sort of cohesive persona here, but that's due less to lack of charisma than to her conscious, consummate chameleonism, her own strongest point as a master pop stylist. She's equally comfortable, and equally convincing, portraying the wide-eyed romantic of "Secret Garden," the trenchant woman-scorned of "Negotiate with Love," and the brazen coquette of the R&B-haunted "Je M'Appelle" -- all of whom could, after all, be the same woman at different moments. If this album offers us a glimpse of the "real" Rachel Stevens, it might very well be in its final track, the rather archly titled "Dumb Dumb," which belies its generic clubland groove with a ruminative third-person account of a gold-hearted, secretly despondent pinup who "sacrificed her image for her beauty." That's pure speculation of course, but it's hard to imagine Stevens tripping through the pop-star merry-go-round as she has, garnering such conspicuous potential and such compromised fulfillment, without picking up at least a touch of world-weary resignation. And all she wants is love.