Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ghost of a Chance

Susan Boyle's new album, Someone to Watch over Me, kills me. 

And it's only partially because she won that big contest despite looking like a Neanderthal merged with Little Orphan Annie back in 2009.  The songs she and/or her managers/producers have chosen have a resounding oddness and poetry simply because of her voice, status and charm, a bone-deep mysteriousness both from the musical arrangements and the singular, studied, mystical way Susan sings. 

Susan actually offers up a rendition of "Enjoy the Silence" by Depeche Mode that brings me to tears.  The way it's been produced, the song is no longer a vibrating neo-disco chant, but a sleepy, sophisticated, seductive ballad.  I play it going on home visits, driving through rundown working-class neighborhoods.  The journey kind of goes cinematic and spiritual, Susan's voice turning peeling vinyl siding and wet barking dogs and upside-down toys in the mud into images from a tragic, delicate independent movie in my head.  Some sincere, enchanting documentary about abandoned hopes and dreams, etc.

"Enjoy the Silence" bleeds into Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and that ethereal treatise on something being lost and something being gained in living everyday bleeds into the late Jeff Buckley's "Lilac Wine," one of those songs that make you feel like you've dropped in on a dream while it's still in progress. 

This is an album that makes you want to succumb to its bittersweet spell so you can officially be invisible. 

Susan's transformation from that creepy kinky-haired She-Devil to Sophisticated Song Stylist is no longer the main story here.  However it happened, Susan has started to create a body of work that feels authentic and has a comforting melancholic gloss.  Like the Carpenters' or Bread's or Gordon Lightfoot's, Susan's oeuvre has a lasting sting to it because of the mix of easy-listening approachability and sorrow, show-biz and serious longing.  Someone to Watch over Me is a slick, rigorous, and slightly off-kilter collection of songs about not getting what you want.  One of the few newly written songs on the album, titled "This Will Be The Year,"  already feels like a classic.  All about lost chances and trying over and over to get things right, Susan sings the song with the depth, hurt and majesty of all people who've not been taken seriously and who stow away doubts and taunts until one day they get the chance to fly out of the ashes of their lives.  Revenge somehow leaks out of every note in "This Will Be the Year."  It feels like Susan is confronting all those people who laughed at her, or considered her a lost cause, or just plain ignored her.  That's the feeling I get:  all those people who never thought she had a ghost of a chance, and now here she is ghostly and powerful, haunting pop culture with a grace and dignity that almost out-shimmers Adele.

Here's to you, Susan:  to who you were but especially to who you are now, and to that lovely, distinct, musical pain and suffering that allows us a brief respite from true sadness.