New Edition’s third record All For Love has one serious moment of excitement, and it’s right at the beginning: an aggressive, startling synth-drum and perfectly harmonized incantation. “COUNT-ME-OUT!” It surprises you, and it sets you up for a new New Edition, a bolder and stronger band with a new and exciting sound.
It doesn’t last long, though. “Count Me Out” immediately settles down after its dramatic intro, easing into a friendly sequel-song to “Cool It Now” that we would expect from New Edition. Ahh, well. They were so close, for that one moment! They were! But still, what we’re left with is pretty great, another solid single from a wonderful group.
“Count Me Out” is no drastic reinvention, but it’s another minor step forward. You can feel a difference, subtle as it may be – the guitar is funkier, the percussion is looser, the boys’ harmonies duck in and out of the track impressively in a way they never have before, surrounding Ralph Tresvant’s typically spunky-youth lead. It’s more of a jam than anything they’d done before, but with all the cute trademarks that made them teenybopper favorites for adults to love.
And it makes no concessions, no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a sequel to “Cool It Now” – heck, if you watch the video, they even go out of their way to establish that Ralph’s girlfriend is the same girl in the “Cool It Now” video (thanks for the continuity, kids!). Of course, we’re moving on: “Cool It Now” presented Ralph in the first flush of love despite his bandmates’ stern disapproval, climaxing with Ralph telling his buds off for the first time and embracing love despite all its pratfalls. In “Count Me Out,” Ralph and his lady are in a happy relationship, but his Bell Biv Devoe buds (it’s just them in the video, at least – Bobby Brown didn’t stick around for the shoot) refuse to understand that Ralph might want to have a night in with his nice lady instead of playing basketball with them. Once again, we get some great charming vocal interplay between them, ending in a wonderful rap-exchange where the two parties vent their feelings once and for all.
It’s a formula for New Edition, albiet a sweet and likable one. I just kinda feel bad for Ralph – dude is just tryin to have some nice romantic time with his ladyfriend! And his friends have been, shall I say, less than understanding! First “Cool It Now” and now this! It’s gettin old, fellas. You’re in your mid-teens for goodness’ sake. You’re gettin too old for this attitude. It’s time to let Ralph have some privacy. It’s time to support your bud.
“Count Me Out” sounds like the beginning of a sitcom plot. Nothing is resolved, here. Ralph insists the dudes can count him out of their weekly brosef hangout, but they seem unable or unwilling to take no for an answer (culminating in the adorably vulnerable line “what about us? we’re your friends!”). Right after this song ends, I can see the embittered Bell Biv Devoe stalking poor Ralph on his date, sneaking cat litter in his girlfriend’s popcorn and tattling to the movie theater usher that, no, Ralph is not 18 and shouldn’t be admitted into Rambo 2. Ralph eventually catches on to the boys’ devilish sabotage, confronts them, and a Lesson Is Learned while schmaltzy synths play in the background. It’s all there. You can see it.
“Count Me Out” finds Ralph Tresvant as Alfalfa and the rest of the guys as the He-Man Woman Haters Club. It’s a funny, goofy, cute dynamic, but one I can’t see these guys pulling off much longer. It is time, indeed, to grow up. And leave poor Ralph alone!
“Count Me Out” is the brightest pop song on All For Love, not their best single but a good one. It wasn’t enough anymore. They needed a change. They needed somewhere to go. Where?
The answer, of course, is “Kickback,” track 6 on All For Love. I’m not sure if this song was an intentional continuation of “Count Me Out” and “Cool It Now,” but it’s telling that it’s vocally dominated by Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike, with very little Ralph to be found. In the narrative of New Edition, Ralph is happy in love and the rest of the guys.. don’t like it? Don’t like love? Their reasons are never made clear, but on “Kickback” we start to understand:
“I grabbed my pillow in the middle of the night
Shook in a ice cold sweat
Curious of what real love feels like
It hasn’t hit me yet”
Oh, ahhh. Now we see. They don’t get it yet. They’ve never felt it. They see their bud Ralph, full-on falling in love and experiencing all of its sugar-high joys, and they don’t understand. They want to know how it feels, they want to understand, but they’re too young and they’re too scared to try.
Gosh, boys. I get it. Damn. You think they tried to hide this one from Ralph? You think after “Count Me Out” they snuck away into a smaller studio and recorded this one in hushed voices? Fearing that Ralph would barge in and be all like, “you losers! I bet you’ve never even SMOOCHED a gal!” Then he’d give them all wet willies? I bet. I bet.
I love “Kickback,” though, especially for that chorus:
“My mama told me that would be our find
You will find love in reality, she said
Baby, you don’t have to wonder
Just kickback and love will come
Love will tap you on the shoulder
Kickback and love will grow”
Oh thank goodness. Let’s not forget that the members of New Edition were still approximately 16 or 17 when All For Love saw release. They’re so young! Too young to really understand love, too young to worry about it. Their mom is giving them good advice: just take it easy and don’t worry about it. It’ll happen, eventually. Be young and live your life, go see a movie with your friend Ralph and play basketball, ’cause that’s what being young is all about. You’ve got plenty of time to fall in love when you’re older.
“Kickback” is in the same league as M2M’s “Don’t Say You Love Me”: good-hearted, honest songs about the teenage experience. New Edition have plenty of non-complex lovey dovey songs (several of which are on All For Love), but it’s a song like “Kickback” that grounds them, strengthens them, makes them human. It’s a real bit of truth dressed up in funky dance-pop clothing. If there’s one track I’d want to point to when asked about New Edition’s unique appeal, it would be this one.
I do think All For Love is a fine album, and a step forward, but I wouldn’t call it one of New Edition’s best. It doesn’t have the adorable kiddy freshness of Candy Girl or the breakawy independence of New Edition. It sticks to what you expect, doesn’t try anything new. A product of a rough period for the group: the guys owed a ton of money to MCA Records due to legal fees, forcing them into the studio for the next few years to record a flurry of new albums to pay them back. Even worse, Bobby Brown – the closest NE had come to producing a star, next to Ralph Tresvant – ditched and/or was rejected from the group (stories vary). Sick of the group’s lack of sexiness, sick of making music for children, sick of sharing the spotlight with Ralph and not getting enough solos, he got the heck out of there. The guys were stuck as a foursome, pushing them into an awkward situation they never asked for.
It’s not a small thing, a band member leaving a group for the first time. They are not replacable, even in a teen pop group. If they aren’t replaced, there’s a hole. If they are replaced, they’re not the same. It’s a sign of disunity, disharmony, trouble. The cracks showing. New Edition were at a peak level of popularity by 1985. Band unity was crucial to keep things running smoothly, and they lost that when Bobby left, their most aggressive and charismatic member. An exciting, promising future turned into an uncertain one. What the heck were they gonna do now??
All For Love was a moderate success, not matching the all-powerful New Edition but keeping hope alive. There’s alot to like on this record: the excitable pure pop of “Sweet Thing” and “All For Love,” the laid-back “Who Do You Trust,” the syrupy ballads “With You All The Way” and “Whispers In Bed.” Then there’s another entirely self-penned track (that is, all of the guys minus Bobby): “School,” a mostly-rapped song about the importance of staying in school no matter what. There’s a real hint of sadness in this one, for me: how much time were these guys able to devote to education? How much did they have to give up, for the sake of their careers? There’s this sense of arrested development when it comes to teen pop acts. Teenagers forced to live an adult life too early, adult situations and adult emotions. They wanted to kickback, but they couldn’t. They didn’t have the time. They needed to keep the money flowing, to keep seedy record executives happy.
All For Love did just that. The guys maintained their popularity, but what else could they do now? All For Love marked an end of innocence for New Edition. They were no longer unstoppable, no longer candy-cute, no longer novelty. If they didn’t take action, if they didn’t adapt and change, they would be lost. It was a do-or-die moment. Were they up to the challenge? Could they do it?