Thursday, February 07, 2008

Turning The Tide

kd lang - Watershed (Nonesuch, 2008)

Fascinatingly, it took an album of covers to get kd lang (I still find the insistence on lower case letters infuriating) to reveal her original voice. 2004’s ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’, an overwhelmingly spare and desolate collection of songs by fellow Canadian songwriters, at last made it abundantly clear just what a superb singer she can be. Rich in emotion and experience, her powerful but languid delivery imbued new life into songs many would consider beyond improvement (her unhurried phrasing and graceful purpose gave Joni Mitchell’s sublime ‘A Case of You’ its definitive reading). At last, she seemed to have stopped trying to emulate the great country singers, or the legendary crooners, and found a powerful space of her own.

‘Watershed’ is Lang’s first album of self-penned material in eight years, and also the first album she has self-produced. The latter fact may be just as significant as her return to composing, as this is as lush and seductive an album as I’ve heard in some time. Whilst much of it was apparently recorded at home, sometimes in single takes, it sounds as meticulously crafted as an expensive studio recording. Its arrangements are exquisite and its elaborate moods sophisticated and compelling. With fascinating instrumentation (occasional flourishes of vibraphone, delicate brush drums or subtle programming, pedal steel guitar and strings), ‘Watershed’ at last draws together all the seemingly contradictory elements of Lang’s musical personality into a fulfilling and intoxicating mix of heady balladry. The combination of sensual jazz stylings and the candour and emotion of country music merge with refreshing ease – particularly on the tender ‘Coming Home’. The pace is consistently slow and protracted, but this suits Lang’s voice perfectly – particularly in the way her vocal purity eschews virtuosity or florid complexity in favour of drawing as much resonance and emotion as possible from long notes. There’s a profound intimacy to this material.

‘Watershed’ also serves as a timely reminder of Lang’s expressive qualities as a lyricist. She has a precise and powerful economy with language (‘on the cusp of compromise/to living hell, I tripped and fell’) and a detailed insight into matters of the heart. The supreme longing of ‘I Dream of Spring’, with its contrast of perfunctory love with the thrill of real discovery, makes for a broadly erotic curtain-raiser (‘The world is filled with frozen lovers/The sheets of their beds are so very cold/And I have slept there in the snow with others/Yet loved no others before’). The gospel-tinged ‘Sunday’ is more candid, speaking of ‘Sunday afternoon, naked in your room’, fusing the spiritual and the sexual in the time honoured manner of the best pop songs. ‘Thread’ incisively captures the way fear can be a limiting and destructive factor in relationships. Best of all might be ‘Shadow and The Frame’, an impressionistic and sensual arrangement accompanied by a vulnerable and honest lyrical self-reflection.

‘Watershed’ is certainly Lang’s most open album, in a number of senses, its sensual and assured sound matching its introspective but affecting subject matter. There’s also a real sense of space in the music, which even the silky string arrangements never puncture. Lang has not really ever matched the commercial success of ‘Ingenue’, but perhaps the smooth tapestry of genres distilled here might render her an accessible performer again. This bears comparison with Feist’s ‘The Reminder’, one of my favourite records of last year - another enthralling and sophisticated pop record with real emotional depth.

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