Growing up

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There’s only one thing missing that would make the Spice Girls latest album, Forever, a sublime experience: a few songs written by Utada Hikaru.

In the past year, Utada has released three singles, two produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a third produced by Rodney Jerkins. Coincidentally, those are the same producers who have brought the Ginger-less Spice Girls out of musical childhood and into adolesence.

The Spice Girls’ PR machinery have spun this third recorded effort as a more mature work, and in many respects, it is. Gone are the sound bite platitudes and cuddly, bubbly personas of albums past.

Now, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh — um, I mean Emma, Melanie, Melanie and Victoria wear uniform, sexy black and look every bit of their alleged ages. And the music? It’s sleek, it’s lush, it’s got some really great beats — in short, utterly and abashedly commercial.

Whereas Spice and Spiceworld reveled in tooth-rotting sacchrine, Forever is that dash of coffee to go along with the milk and sugar.

If you don’t pay too close attention to the words, Forever might even come across as adult. But as such, the 11 songs that make up this album are a series of odes to modern romance. Nothing, in other words, that you haven’t already heard before from better poets.

(Better poets indeed. “Right Back At Ya” reeks of such desparate assertation of the Girls’ staying power, it’s woefully comic. That’s perhaps the largest misstep on a generally safe album.)

And while it’s easy to relegate Forever into background music while at the office or during study hour — the phat beats aren’t all that intrusive, thankfully — the album does do a terrific job in leaving a favorable impression.

Unless you’re incorrigibly pretentious, Forever is a hard album to resist — even if it lacks the in-your-face, over-the-top vitality of the Spice Girls’ explosive debut. Come to think of it, the album does tend to get a bit heavy with the ballads, although Melanie C. gets to show off her pipes on “Time Goes By.”

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a third dose of “Girl Power!” from this quartet of competent singers. Had the Spice Girls continued in that vein, they would have mercilessly met a rather public cold shoulder from consumers.

Forever, in short, is a nice change for the Spice Girls.