k.d. lang is getting laid on a regular basis. A big rah-rah for her. And now a moment of silence for her music.
Invincible Summer, her latest album, is an aural siesta, a daisy chain of bland, overharmonized melodies laid to percussion tracks so boring and mechanical I was shocked to see human names in the credits. It’s a happy-talking bummer of an album, and what makes it even more dismaying is the knowledge that lang, not so many years ago, was one of the most vital presences in pop music’s alternative fringes.
Remember? The crazy Canadian dyke who jumped from the Patsy Cline channeling of Shadowland (still her finest work) to the wide-plains sound of Absolute Torch and Twang to the haunted chamber pop of Ingenue? Oh, sure, there was always a certain post-modern archness to her genre hopping, but that smoky contralto of hers an instrument of remarkable beauty, power and flexibility always seemed to burst through the ironic quotation marks she wrapped it in. It exploded categories. It was a voice you would follow anywhere.
That is, until it started going nowhere. The signs were there five years ago with All You Can Eat, an album whose suggestive title was quickly belied by its sexless tributes to “the infinite and unforeseen.” lang could still blow you back on your heels: the closing song, “I Want It All,” was an anthem to sexual possession that built, trance-like, to an ejaculative finish. But increasingly, she was reverting to gaseous fortune-cookie philosophy and to an early-’70s synth sound that wasn’t so much retro as exhausted.
The downward spiral continues with Invincible Summer, which takes its name from an Albert Camus line: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” It can’t have been easy, finding an optimistic quote from Camus; it may have been the hardest work anyone did on this album. Even lang’s voice seems to be struggling to rouse itself she sounds like she’s singing through a pillowcase.
Not necessarily a bad thing when the words you’re imparting are on the order of “Early morning, mid-July/Anticipation’s making me high . . . In this crazy world full of lemons, baby/You’re lemonade . . . Every sound I hear/Is music to my ears. It’s too good to be true./It’s happening with you.” Clearly, lang has come a far from the more complex (and more convincing) days of Ingenue, in which she pleaded with her fickle lover: “Save me/Save me from you./But pave me/The way to you.”
No getting around it: k.d. is one happy chick these days. Conscientious lesbian that she is, she’s found a nice gal Leisha Haley of the band The Murmurs and moved in with her. And now she wants us all to know how good she feels, and if that’s not a recipe for bad music, I don’t know what is.
We’ve seen it before. Bonnie Raitt marries Michael O’Keefe and rents out her soul to VH-1. Billy Joel gets so giddy about boinking Christie Brinkley he devotes an entire bad album, An Innocent Man, to it. Bruce Springsteen meets his Patty and swerves straight off Thunder Road into a gated development where the biggest worry is having fifty-seven channels and nothing on. (I’d trade everything the Boss has done from “Streets of Philadelphia” on for just one of the fearsome shrieks he let out on Nebraska‘s “Mr. State Trooper.”)
Oh, yeah, it’s Paul and Linda. It’s John and Yoko. It’s loving the one you’re with and letting the music slip away like an unguarded toddler. And don’t tell me these musicians are just fulfilling the promise of rock-and-roll’s procreative beat. Rock music is founded not on sexual congress, as the Bible-humping Enemies of Elvis believed, but on sexual frustration.
Call the roll of rock pioneers. Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown those boys had plenty of sex in their day, but that’s not satiety you hear in their itchy syncopations, their rough-hewn rhythms. It’s (to quote lang again) a constant craving. “Satisfaction” was about the absence of satisfaction, and Mick Jagger’s jivey, hopped-up dance was the joneses of a teenager who couldn’t get his rocks off any other way. Aretha Franklin wanted to feel like a natural woman, but she had to wait around for that do-wrong, all-night man to finish his business elsewhere. The gap between desire and fruition is where rock music properly thrives.
I don’t begrudge anybody a regular sex life, and I don’t subscribe to the romantic notion that artists must suffer to create good art. But I do think art needs dialectical tension some internal abrasive that can rough up life’s smooth surfaces. That’s why, when I listen to the endless grooviness of Invincible Summer, I find myself uncharitably wishing that k.d. and Leisha would have a fight or, at the very least, a bad date. Amity is nice, but the most beautiful and mesmerizing song I’ve heard in the past few months “Little Water Song,” the lush Nick Cavepenned ballad on Ute Lemper’s Punishing Kiss is about a woman being drowned by her lover. Now that’s a bad date.
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Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.