In our review of “Instant Crush” (the lead single off the new Natalie Imbruglia album “Male”), earlier this year, we were fairly candid about our skepticism around the fact that it was a cover version of a song by Daft Punk and the teaser of an album solely of covers. The rationale for our skepticism stemmed from a perception of depleted “novelty value” around a project whose songs had been recorded and heard before. Furthermore, given that it had been six years since Natalie’s last album (the brilliant and under-rated “Come to life“), we were a little underwhelmed by the idea that there was going to be no newly written material. Natalie Imbruglia is an incredibly gifted songwriter and our growing admiration of her over the years takes its roots in our view that she is actually getting better with time from a songwriting perspective. That being said, we were incredibly pleased with her version of “Instant Crush“. Her emotional rendition of this song revealed her ability to peel through the various layers of production (including vocoder-driven vocals by Julian Casablancas) of the relatively lackluster Daft Punk original to reveal a song that in its embryonic form was inherently beautiful. More importantly, she has taken a huge leap in an endeavor to bring this song out of obscurity. She facilitates this through her emotional vocals and her producer Billy Mann’s stylistically schizophrenic treatment of it wherein the verses are decidedly down-tempo while the chorus is uptempo and reminiscent of the acoustic indie-sounding leaning that became Natalie’s sonic template from the very beginning. The song gave birth to our framework for the evaluation of a covers album. Our first attempt at employing this framework is through this review of the new Natalie Imbruglia covers album titled “Male“.
a] Curation for thematic cohesion:
The birth of a covers album begins with the selection of songs that will be given a sonic reboot. This is an important piece of the creative process as it allows the curator of the songs to share a little about themselves, their tastes, and their intentions behind picking songs. Despite the fact that we live in a world today where algorithmic recommendation engines have touted their impeccable abilities to unlock the doors to “music discovery”, trends around popularity have revealed that human curation continues to be king. For “Male“, Natalie Imbruglia has picked songs by male artists with the intention of offering the interpretation of the opposite gender. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she stated that “the songs on this album are about finding that life partner and that sentiment behind the songs, which I think is beautiful” – and that is absolutely true here. Hence, despite showcasing eclectic tastes through songs that span four decades and multiple genres, she absolutely succeeds in her endeavor to curate for thematic cohesion.
b] Making songs one’s own via the addition of a personal stamp:
Identifying and verbalizing what makes a Natalie Imbruglia track quintessentially “Natalie Imbruglia” is non-trivial. But if we had to take a stab at it, we would say it is the marriage of that acoustically driven mid-tempo sonic template with vocals that brim with an innocence that is rarely ever conveyed by female artists in the realm of popular music these days. That musical trademark finds itself in ALL the tracks on “Male“.
In the past, the artist that we have routinely applauded for his ability to bring relatively obscure songs to a larger audience is George Michael. Noteworthy examples include “Edith and the kingpin” (Joni Mitchell), “F.E.A.R” (Ian Brown), and “Going to a town“(Rufus Wainwright). Picking relatively obscure but beautiful songs has the ability to suggest novelty without there being any real novelty from a songwriting perspective.
Natalie Imbruglia is no stranger to bringing songs out of obscurity and giving them a cloak of mass appeal – like she did with her worldwide debut smash and signature hit “Torn” (formerly written and recorded by American alternative rock band Ednaswap). She does this incredibly well on “Instant Crush” but we were hoping she would fare better on this front on the rest of “Male“.
While we have to give Natalie kudos for bringing to the forefront the work of relatively unknown (at least in the US) Aussie singer-songwriter Josh Pyke’s “The Summer“, I cannot help but think that while Natalie has done a great remake of the song, she could have done even better. For instance, the “I wanna live like we live in the summer” line (currently being sung by backup singers) would have actually sounded better with Natalie singing that bit solo in a lower pitch. The contrasting pitches within the chorus would have sounded fantastic and Natalie would have been able to pull that off with relative ease.
While the album has its fair share of songs whose original recordings were obscure, we believe that Natalie Imbruglia only repeated what she did with “Torn” successfully with “Instant Crush” and “The Summer“.
d] Comparison with the original performances of the songs:
One of the unavoidable questions typically posed for a cover version is “how does it compare with the original?”.
The obvious improvements over the originals are on Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush“, and Damien Rice’s “Cannonball“. With “Instant Crush”, Natalie Imbruglia has reminded us that there was a real tune being unfairly obscured by a vocoder on the original. On “Cannonball“, the sincerity and longing in her vocals works better than the relatively subdued delivery of Damien Rice. Furthermore, the piano-driven arrangement of Natalie’s version is a huge improvement over the downtempo acoustic soundscape that dominates the original. If this song gets the promotion it deserves, it is very likely to be the version of “Cannonball” that people find themselves returning to.
From a production perspective, the cover of “Let my love open the door” is yet another improvement over the original by Pete Townshend– owing to the rich and layered instrumentation. The harmonies on the Middle 8 of the song are also a highlight.
The lost opportunity for a remake here was that of Neil Young’s “Only love can break your heart“. Indie Dance act Saint Etienne did a far better job of this in the early 90s turning it into a mid-tempo dance jam. Natalie opts for a minimalistic arrangement that could very well have been an acapella track if it wasn’t for the prominent bass guitar that plays through almost the entire length of the track.
“Friday I’m in Love” belongs to The Cure and absolutely no one else. The country-esque rendition of this song does not add much, if anything, to the album. We are guessing that Natalie Imbruglia was aware that covering this song could lead to a somewhat polarized opinion – so we have to give her credit for taking a calculated risk here.
As a covers album, the album fares reasonably well, for the most part, if not it its entirety. As a pop album, it probably is likely to underwhelm listeners hoping for something that possessed the stylistic and tempo-based variation of “Come to Life” – especially during the second half of the album where it loses some of the momentum generated by the engaging first few tracks. Natalie Imbruglia sounds at ease through the entire length of the album and does not appear to be trying too hard – which from my perspective, is a good thing. While the album is likely to trigger mixed reactions, there is one thing that is likely to enjoy a universal consensus – and that is the idea that Natalie Imbruglia absolutely needs to be a continuous fixture in the pop music landscape. There is a reason she still has an audience almost 17 years since the release of “Torn“. Since then, she has demonstrated a steady progression in her songwriting (including on her delectable B-sides). While we are glad she indulged her vocal competence on “Male“, we would like her to return to the songwriter’s seat. Hopefully, we will not have to wait another six years for that to happen.
STAR RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars