11 Past the Hour
3 out of 5 stars
Lots changed for Irish singer/songwriter Imelda May in 2017. At the time, she was recently divorced and had released three hugely popular albums in her homeland, all in a similar roots rockabilly/rollicking country style. But that year, the T Bone Burnett produced Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. heralded a shift, not just musical, but in her hairstyle (scrapping the trademarked spit-curl for a more natural do) and overall vocal/sonic approach. The ballad heavy, noir oriented set recalled Phil Spector, Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak in its often pensive atmospheric Americana vibe. May’s robust croon, similar to that of Chrissie Hynde, edged into diva territory as her songs became more introspective and personal.
One spoken word EP later (another audacious, unexpected move) and May is back, again pushing against her previous persona. This time she’s aiming for pop rock territory with an approach that’s tougher, less playful and generally more lyrically reflective. While the world can always do with another potent vocalist singing well written songs, May’s new direction often feels generic, especially compared with her idiosyncratic earlier releases.
That’s not to disparage either the quality of the material, which works well enough in a bluesy rock way, or May’s impressive husky vocals that are suitable for this environment. Still, tracks such as the mid-tempo rocker “Made to Love” and “What We Did in the Dark” grind along with a slight ‘80’s new wave feel, sounding calculated to try to find their way onto radio. Perhaps there is an excess of Pat Benatar and not enough Divinyls. When she goes acoustic on the strummer duet “Don’t Let Me Stand on My Own,” there’s plenty of vulnerability in the lyrics of I’m calling for you and I need to get through/So stay with me just for tonight, but the sweeping violins are an unnecessary addition.
Both Noel Gallagher and Ron Wood contribute to the leathery “Just One Kiss,” a hooky rocker that hues awfully close to Pretenders territory. Moments such as the emotional “Breathe” are also enhanced with strings and an overall tendency to appeal to the ears of Adele’s fans as May goes full chanteuse on the room filling chorus. The opening title track seems like an outtake from Burnett’s album. It’s a haunting, retro styled ballad where the strings feel natural and a stun guitar that appears out of nowhere, at two and half minutes in, is dramatic and intense. The album could use more tracks like it.
All artists aiming for lasting careers reinvent themselves, some more successfully than others. In Imelda May’s case, this commercial shift seems a deliberate way to attract a larger audience, sell more albums and raise her star profile. In doing so, it often, but not always, dissipates much of what made her talents so distinctive to begin with.