Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Melancholy lady


Soothingly sad songs in k.d. lang's 'Watershed'

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Is it possible to take an artist's near-perfection for granted? At her recent sold-out concert at the Palace of Fine Arts, singer-composer k.d. lang seemed refined, almost measured in her performance, compared to previous shows. Included among the popular songs from previous albums were selections from her new CD, the moody and contemplative Watershed .

After a few acclaimed CDs of themed cover songs like Hymns of the 49th Parallel, and a Tony Bennett collaboration, lang, a four-time Grammy winner, has returned after an eight-year hiatus to the collaborative success of composing with co-composer Ben Mink. Bassist David Pitch also has co-writing credits on some songs. The results smoothly swirl out with clarity and tenderness, which have become the trademark of lang's recent work. But don't expect too much of the rambunctious youngster of lang's early days. The mood this time is slower, softer, and more than a bit sad.

This was also telling at lang's San Francisco concert. Despite some persistent hooting from a few devoted female fans in the back (pining for 1989's Absolute Torch and Twang days), the Watershed songs are winsome, easy-going without falling into the pitfalls of Easy Listening, and overall a bit crestfallen.

Yet lang finds a way to weave heartache into pearls of harmony (with her own back-up vocals on the CD). Lyrics in a few songs are more directly addressed to or about a woman, expanding lang's status as a lesbian music icon, as if that needed any improvement. The clarity and confidence lang brings forth in every song are countered by a mood of romantic loss combined with personal quandaries. The blend of her clear pitch and confidence, as well as the musical arrangements, hearken back to her 1992 album Ingenue.

But Watershed records a more embittered form of experience, despite a few soothing romantic verses here and there. The song "Sunday" veers toward the easy listening genre until lang's lyrics more clearly describe her perfect day off, "Naked in your room, Love is all consumed." There may even be a touch of self-pity, as in "Flame of the Uninspired," where lang sings, "I'm in the corner licking off my wounds, Love's come and gone all too soon."

In "Close Your Eyes," the shift from angelic vocals to thick guitar strums and minor-key violin phrases toward the end (actually, electronic keyboards provide the lush strings sound) gives an almost hallucinogenic Sgt. Pepper quality, more fully realized live than on the CD.

With slow ballads and a general melancholy throughout, one would never suspect that the artist is actually in a happy six-year relationship. It seems lang, or the persona she's portraying in Watershed , needs a little cheering up. Or perhaps, in examining unrest and ennui, she's already moved on.

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