Way back in 1997 Natalie Imbruglia covered a song called “Torn” by a little known alternative group called Ednaswap and found herself propelled into global superstardom. It was from an album called Left of the Middle, one of the year’s highest selling releases. The record also spawned other hits, such as “Wishing I Was There” and “Smoke,” but here in the States “Torn” seems to be the only song anyone remembers. It’s unfortunate because Natalie is very talented and has released some great albums since. In fact, her sophomore effort, White Lilies Island, happens to be one of my top 10 albums of all-time. Sadly, it sold poorly here in the States and she hasn’t released an album here since. She has, however, continued to be a major success in the rest of the world, releasing hit after hit, like “Beauty On The Fire,” “Wrong Impression,” “Counting Down The Days” and “Want.” I should also mention that Natalie is a singer/songwriter, something most people don’t realize, assuming she doesn’t write songs just because she didn’t write “Torn.”
To state the obvious, I’m biased here, being such a fan of Natalie’s work, but music journalists are often biased. They just do a good job of hiding it. I could have done that here, but I thought you’d be more likely to check out her new album, Male, if you knew just how much I like her. (When someone tells me that an artist is one of their favorites I’m much more likely to check them out.) That said, when I first heard that her first album since 2009’s Come To Life was to be an album of covers I was disappointed. I wanted new original music from Natalie. But I thought about how different “Torn” was from Ednaswap’s version and hoped that the covers on Male wouldn’t all be paint-by-numbers. Fortunately, it is not, Natalie having put her own spin on most of its songs.
The reason the album is called Male is because it consists of songs written by males. A somewhat clever idea, though not entirely original. After all, Tori Amos did an album of covers by males called Strange Little Girls in 2001. Although Tori took the concept further and covered songs that were written about women and reversed the gender roles to show the female perspective.
Male opens with Natalie’s take on “Instant Crush” by Daft Punk and Julian Casablancas. Like most of the songs on the album, Natalie has stripped it down and rendered it very organic. Her peppy, piano-led rendition also features crystal clear vocals, whereas Julian’s vocals on the original are difficult to understand. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album precisely because her version is so different. Likewise, she’s taken Death Cab For Cutie’s “I’ll Follow You Into The Dark,” an understated song simply consisting of vocals and acoustic guitar, and added piano and strings. While Death Cab’s version is touching, I find Natalie’s version to be much more emotive, not to mention prettier. (Then again, Natalie’s voice is gorgeous, so all of the songs on hand sound prettier.) I also find Death Cab’s version to be melancholic, whereas Natalie’s is warm if not joyful.
Another greatly transformed track is The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love,” which Natalie has turned into a super energetic, country-flavored number complete with banjo. Robert Smith will probably cringe when he hears it, as will most die-hard fans of The Cure, but it’s invigorating and fun, so instead of crying blasphemy, let’s try to enjoy it. It does take a few listens to grow on you though.
My favorite track at the time of this writing is Natalie’s version of Neil Young’s classic “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which Natalie sings accompanied solely by bass guitar. I’m also quite fond of her vibrant take on Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door,” which sounds quite different because it’s performed with acoustic instruments. Similarly, she’s taken Modern English’s “I Melt With You” and made it sound more like a song from her Counting Down The Days album than the original version. To that end, she’s completely removed the ’80’s vibe from it, which is one of the rare instances where I’ve heard a song from the ’80’s covered and not sound out-dated like the original. (Don’t get me wrong — I love the original. It just sounds quite dated at this point.)
Suffice to say, most of the songs on Male sound as different from the originals as Natalie’s upbeat and polished “Torn” sounded different from Ednaswap’s sparse, slow and melancholic original. (I love both versions, just for the record.) In some cases, that may please you, especially if you’re a pop fan, while in some instances that may bother you. That’s the thing about covers — they tend to generate strong opinions. To be entirely honest, I still wish she would have released a new album of original material, but Male does make a fine addition to her discography. I just wonder who the target audience is, if they’re hoping fans of the originals will like Natalie’s versions and become fans or if they’re just hoping Natalie’s existing fans will be pleased by these covers. I suppose it’s a combination of the two. So, whether you’re a fan of Natalie’s already or you’re just a fan of a handful of the songs she does here, I would certainly say that the album is worth checking out. It’s my least favorite of her albums, but it’s still better than most covers albums. It’s better than most pop albums of late, too.