Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten was a better than average slice of Top 40 ear candy buoyed by a pair of genuinely great pop singles, the self-empowerment title track, and the giddy "These Words," the most meta love song since Elton John's "Your Song." It seemed likely that the New Zealand-born, London-based singer/songwriter (the younger sister of dance-pop star Daniel Bedingfield) would be even more successful with her second album, but fate and record company politicking intervened. In early 2007, Bedingfield released a pre-album single called "I Wanna Have Your Babies," a fizzy, synthy tune that continued on the same self-conscious path as "These Words": at heart, it was a song about how the most shocking thing a woman could say (either to her boyfriend or in a pop song) was that she wanted to procreate. Although it was just a lighthearted jab at the hypersexualized nature of popular culture in the age of Paris Hilton sex tapes and paparazzi photos of Britney Spears sans culottes, the song was both generally misinterpreted and a complete commercial flop in the U.S. Bedingfield's second album, N.B., was released on schedule in the U.K. in May 2007, but Epic quietly scrubbed its American release. Later in the year, a new single, an agreeable but slightly faceless reggae-tinged collaboration with rising R&B star Sean Kingston called "Love Like This," made it into the Billboard Top 20 chart, and a slightly revised version of N.B. was announced for U.S. release, with the hit single and a new title track, "Pocketful of Sunshine," added to the album's lineup. The release was scrubbed yet again, and with each new release date, fewer songs from N.B. remained on the track listing, with the flop single "I Wanna Have Your Babies" among the first to go.
In its final form as released in January 2008, Pocketful of Sunshine contains only half of N.B.'s 14 songs, with six brand new tracks. To be fair, the seven earlier songs held over are the stronger material: the spare acoustic guitar ballad "Soulmate" shows Christina Aguilera that it's possible to sound dramatic without wildly over-singing, and "Say It Again" makes good use of Maroon 5's Adam Levine as a duet partner. ("No More What Ifs," an awkward pairing of Bedingfield's chirpy and veddy proper diction with an out-of-nowhere rap by Eve that was the nadir of N.B., has thankfully been retired.) Elsewhere, "Who Knows?" and "Not Givin' Up" present a more aggressive and harder-edged version of Bedingfield closer to her brother's electronic club music, an unexpected change of pace that works quite well, recalling Kylie Minogue's more recent work. Far better than the summery charm of the hit "Love Like This," the title track is the most immediately effective of the new songs, featuring an atypically impassioned call-and-response lead vocal against an instantly catchy, gimmicky chorus. Unfortunately, the remaining four songs are the album's weakest tracks, no better or worse than the make-weight tunes that pad out the average American Idol contestant's debut. Natasha Bedingfield is a genuine pop talent who often flashes hints of a greater than average ambition that could turn her into something more substantial than the likes of Rhianna, but the awkwardly assembled Pocketful of Sunshine feels inorganic in a way that Unwritten did not, less personal and more vetted by various A&R executives. The best thing that could happen is that it's enough of a success that she gets left alone to make her third album on her own terms. [A Wal-Mart exclusive was also released.] ~ Stewart Mason