The cover of Susan Boyle's third album, "Someone to Watch Over Me," has the singer offering fans a soft smile, right alongside a title rendered in a gentle font that looks suspiciously like Comic Sans Italic. The very name of the record, referencing a Gershwin tune, sets you up for a possible collection of comfort-food standards.
But don't let any of this fool you: Boyle is really a goth in highlander-spinster’s clothing.
She made her mark on the world with “I Dreamed a Dream,” a song from “Les Miserables,” and two and a half years later, the frump-pop superstar still sounds deeply and profoundly… miserable. But her choice of material, if not her mood, has improved tenfold during the intervening depression, resulting in this surprisingly tasteful downer.
Aside from the titular Gershwin tune, which is heard only as a brief excerpt, there are no overfamiliar standards or show tunes here. Instead, she’s mostly doing a traditional take on contemporary material, much of it borrowed from rockers. She took that tack with last year’s eyebrow-raising cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (because nothing says “Christmas album” like heroin), but the novel choices here seem less like slow-news-day bait and more appropriate for a 50-year-old’s funk.
With Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears chestnuts figuring into the mix, Boyle has made an album that hundreds of thousands of sixty- and seventy-somethings will be getting for Christmas, but that their grand-nieces may well enjoy more than the gift recipients… unless Grandma has a built-in appreciation for lines like “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” (Thank you again for that one, Roland Orzabal.)
You could view the entire album as an exercise in lost or nearly abandoned faith, starting with the downbeat opener, “You Have to Be There,” which has Boyle questioning the existence of God in the very first verse. If that doesn’t strike her fans as a downer — her first album did include “How Great Thou Art,” after all — it’s because there’s an inevitable uplift to anything written by the redoubtable Benny and Bjorn, of ABBA fame. (The tune comes from a 1995 Swedish musical the pair co-wrote.) And guess what? Boyle even sounds a little bit like ABBA’s Agnetha, in her most serioso “Winner Takes It All” mode.
None of the other numbers have their roots in musical theater, so it’s soon time for her version of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” in which all her Opera Lady instincts are toned down for a strange vocal in which she sounds like she’s waking up on the morning after a major bender. Boyle changes the melody ever so slightly, so that the “harm” in “Words… can only do harm” goes up instead of down, making it sound less sinister than Martin Gore’s original, if not a whole lot more uplifting.
Producer Steve Mac seems to want to emphasize Boyle’s vulnerability over her vocal indomitability. So on “Enjoy the Silence,” she sounds alternately girlish and blowsy/world-weary, and on the Righteous Brothers’ classic “Unchained Melody,” there are tentative moments where you’re not 100 percent sure she’s going to stay on pitch. It’s a somewhat brave approach, given that most of her fans probably want to only hear her in full-on I-will-survive mode.
Perhaps the best, and subtlest, track is “Lilac Wine,” a little-remembered 1950s ballad revived in the ‘90s by Jeff Buckley. Again, it offers a good chance to hear the matrons in your family sing along with “I drink much more than I ought to drink” this holiday season.
Mac’s orchestral arrangements are fairly low-key and lovely, and help convince you that you were wrong when you thought you never needed to hear another version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (which you probably only thought if you’re over 40, anyway).
Of course, the natural suspicion in all of this would be that Boyle has been thoroughly directed down to the last note by Mac, who is presumably the real auteur who heard some of the previous covers his arrangements seem loosely based upon. (Compare Boyle’s drowsy vocal on “Enjoy the Silence” to the one done earlier by Susanna & the Magical Orchestra’s version, for starters.)
But Boyle’s heartfelt, if simplistic, liner notes reinforce that she connects with the loneliness in these songs, even if she’s not musicologist enough to have discovered them on her own.
And it’s her liner notes that suggest that the closing excerpt of Gershwin’s title track is meant to be a gospel ballad, not a romantic one — some bookending comfort, probably, to offset that agnostic opening number. It's also a somewhat fitting end to a peculiarly solitary album in which it just about seems like a given that the “Mad World” has no room for romance.
As it turns out, Britain's got talent and deep wellsprings of sorrow. Merry Christmas!