LESS TRAGIC, MORE MAGIC
I have always felt that the main purpose of this blog was to persuade even the smallest fraction of what readership there is to revisit their long-discarded but once-loved records and attempt to reappraise their merits (or otherwise). Sometimes the transportation back to the time of its initial play listing can feel instantaneous.
I actually did this to myself recently when I decided to dig out 1992's "Ingenue" by k.d. Lang which in the heady days of 1993 and in the aftermath of a typically (for me) tragic romantic interlude, it never left my CD player - I remember also having it on cassette so I could access to it through both platforms in a flash.
It wasn't an album that provided solace or empathy - it didn't make me weep endlessly and it didn't make me dust myself off and head back out into the world. The record was just mysterious and conflicted. It had joy mingled with wretchedness which as ever just leads to confusion. I was confused and it helped bizarrely enough to have this confusion seemingly so closely mirrored.
By the time I got round to dusting myself off, "Ingenue" was put away and either because it was a reminder of a time I was happy enough to forget or it had simply served its purpose, I never really returned to it again. Recently, however, I came across a remastered 25th Anniversary pressing of the album (together with the MTV Unplugged show I remembered from the time) and once again, it has been a regular feature of my listening. For those concerned, there is (naturally) no recent romantic catalyst, it is simply a wonderful and even more mysterious record than I ever remembered - one that has truly defied the passage of time.
As a result of "Ingenue", I set about re-investigating some of k d Lang's earlier albums as well and this exploration makes what was released in 1992 all the more intriguing.
She had first come to the record-buying public's notice in the mid 80s as part of the revived interest in Country Music or certainly Americana which had emerged thanks to a wave of younger and far more contemporary leaning artists such as Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Clint Black (I seem to remember they were referred to often as the "Big Hats"). Although Canadian, her strong smoky tenor leant itself well to the country material which she performed with more than a casual nod to Patsy Cline and she was embraced within this renaissance oeuvre.
Awards and recognition came her way in droves especially for her first solo album the beautiful "Shadowland" and the final album with her band, the Reclines "Absolute Torch & Twang". Of course, if you analyse now, you can see the early indicators of the swerve that would come in "Ingenue" but I doubt you would have guessed it with "Wallflower Waltz", "Big Boned Gal" or "Full Moon Full Of Love" stood squarely in the Nashville camp. Even "Shadowland"s opener, "Western Stars" was penned by another huge respecter of the past and favourite of mine, Chris Isaak, it still seems to live up to the atmospheric promise of its title.
There are many individual reasons that are suggested for the stylistic about-turn - she had become outspoken on various issues such as Animal Rights and of course Gay Rights. She would officially come out 4 months after the release of "Ingenue" despite the advice of her record company and then appear with Cindy Crawford on the cover of "Vanity Fare'. However, there was also a difficult broken relationship that seemed to influence her writing and add to the overall sense of a rollercoaster of emotional confusion.
However, what seems more evident is that she had exhausted the genre. "Shadowland" was produced by Owen Bradley who had produced most of the country greats including Patsy Cline herself and the final track of the album "Honky Tonk Angels Medley" was performed with a trio of Nashville legends, Brenda Lee, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn and k d more than holds her own. In 1989, she duetted with Roy Orbison on "Crying" - then helping out as a backing vocalist on his incredible "Black And White Night" concert and the same year brought her more Grammy recognition.
Many artists would have stuck to a playbook that was working but it would seem that country had run its course and her unique voice and writing would need to find another outlet particularly as she had something so deep she wanted to say.
The mystery of "Ingenue" begins with the opening track "Save Me". This is no rousing tub thumper to kick off the new album but instead a slow-paced almost dream-like jazzy drift of a song that sets up the tone and atmosphere for what's to come and you've not heard her sing like this before. From the opening line "save me from you" with the steel guitar line plaintively echoing behind to the languid bass, there are country elements for sure but it just doesn't sound like it is a song from that world at all.
Because whilst this would be a change in direction for k d Lang it was equally a turn in direction for her long time collaborators Ben Mink and Greg Penny who created the kind of multi-genre sound you would hear ten years later when we first heard artists like Norah Jones. It is a sound bed that ensures the record simply doesn't date.
"The Mind Of Love" is the clearest indicator of the author's turmoil - not understanding her actions or feelings as a complete lack of rationality takes over, in her inner conversation with herself. This is the first time we start to hear some of those mournful almost Gypsy-like refrains that take traditional country instrumentation and develop them into a very different sound.
This record manages to be sad but never self-pitying which maybe its most significant elevation from her more traditional country work.
The emotion is driven through the writing of inner turbulence and the contrasting highs and lows of a relationship or of not having one, as well. "Wash Me" has an incredible lyric "cleanse my tarnished dreams" which I seem to remember kept catching in my younger more headstrong days. By the time you have turned the record over and manoeuvred your tortured soul through "Still Thrives This Love" again with a melancholy East European backing and "Season Of Hollow Soul" , you definitely should be looking for some light relief which comes at the very end in the form of the most well-known song "Constant Craving".
This song, is another triumph and was rightly rewarded at the Grammys but it does seem slightly out of place on the album. Perhaps for its more upbeat mood but do not be fooled because lyrically it is absolutely in keeping with the rest of the album. It is a song of blighted hope and one-sided relationships - another anthem for the Romantically Hopeless - but manages to disguise it with a remarkably disarming euphoric tempo and charm.
You'd be hard pressed to find many big hits with the main instrumental riff played on an accordion (I know some of you will be scurrying off to prove me wrong).
The other outlier is the other recognisable single "Miss Chatelaine" which of course, comes across as a swirling flamenco-like celebration but once again disguises a deeper lyrical intent. Here it is the crazy giddiness of love and its ability to make you act completely out of character (don't say you don't know what Im talking about). Lang reflected this in the promo film where she depicted herself with a gaudiness you would never associate with her. In doing interviews to promote the album, she appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show in this costume but she felt, unsurprisingly, the irony was rather lost.
Again, it is another masterclass - as the whole album and experience has been - in misdirection. From the onset, k d Lang challenged the norms of what her audience expected of her and indeed of what she expected of herself. Writing was arduous and production equally painstaking, while the accompanying media brouhaha further added to the associated noise and detracted from the excellent musical intent but the end-result was a very satisfying and reassuring experience.
There had not really been any album like this before; Tanita Tikaram's "Ancient Heart" showed glimpses especially with the phenomenal "Twist In My Sobriety" but lost its way through a lack of stylistic cohesion. Bonnie Raitt's "Nick Of Time" has the cohesion but lacks the darkness. Maybe Rosie Vela's Steely Dan-helmed "Zazu" - but it s impact was limited.
The influence of "Ingenue" can be heard well into this century as the smoky jazz stylings were adopted by artists such as Melody Gardot on "My One And Only Thrill" and Madeleine Peyroux's "Careless Love" which bring this mix of latin, jazz, Eastern Europe and of course torch and twang into a melting pot of sound. It surely influenced the production of Norah Jones's early albums and I think in terms of lyrical complexity you can even trace it into Amy Winehouse's "Frank".
I might never have noticed some of the subtlety or complexity through the cassette deck of my Renault Clio but it definitely served as a wonderful companion then and am delighted to welcome it back again.
Click HERE if you want to put my appraisal to the test.