IMELDA MAY : LIFE. LOVE. FLESH. BLOOD
Label : Decca
Release Date : April 21, 2017
Length : 60:43
Review (AllMusic) : Following the end of her marriage to longtime collaborator and guitarist Darrel Higham in 2015, Irish vocalist Imelda May returns with her fifth studio album, 2017's dark-hued Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Produced by acclaimed roots icon T-Bone Burnett, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood finds May transforming both her sound and image with a suitably haunting and soulful set of songs rife with heartache. Gone are her rockabilly-tinged grooves (and trademark pompadour), replaced with a ballad-heavy, reverb-soaked aesthetic and dark brown Chrissie Hynde-style shag, all of which befits her post-divorce attitude of mourn and move on. If her earlier albums matched '50s rock bounce with '80s new wave attitude, then Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is pure '60s songcraft, a Roy Orbison-esque combination of dusky Americana and vintage British soul. In that sense, it brings to mind similarly inclined albums by artists like Chris Isaak, Richard Hawley, and Elvis Costello. Burnett frames May's throaty, highly resonant croon with a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound punctuated by dreamy guitars (courtesy of Burnett and Marc Ribot), horns (Darrell Leonard), booming low-end bass (via Zach Dawes and Dennis Crouch), sparkling piano (Patrick Warren), B-3 organ (Carl Wheeler), and swirls of über-dramatic Motown-level drums (Jay Bellerose). It's rootsy enough to sound familiar to longtime fans, but also enough of a departure from her heretofore pulpy, leopard-print-and-high-heels rock & roll vibe that some listeners may take a moment to wistfully mark the change. Helping aid the transition and lending their support are several guest performers, including legendary guitar virtuoso and longtime May champion Jeff Beck, who supplies his bluesy reassurance on the languid anthem "Black Tears." Similarly, TV host and former Squeeze pianist Jools Holland shows up on the gospel-infused "When It's My Time." That said, it's May's voice that sticks with you, along with the yearning pathos that she conveys throughout all of Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Thankfully, rather than a complete downer, the album is peppered with moments of cathartic pop joy, as on the anthemic, Brill Building-worthy "Should've Been You" and the swaggering Pixies-do-Southern-soul number "Leave Me Lonely." Even the rambling acoustic folk closer, "The Girl I Used to Be," in which May draws parallels between her younger self and her daughter, strikes a tone of poignant, bittersweet joy. She sings "Now I'm grown with a child of my own/And I hope to god on high/That these are the days she thinks upon/As the best days of her life." It's a direct comment on her own troubles as a divorced parent, but also one imbued with poetry and a universally relatable theme of renewal. In fact, while most of the songs here do read explicitly like May weighing in on the end of her relationship, they never feel uncomfortably personal, and the overall album plays as a paean to heartache itself. Ultimately, while the album may not hit with the rockabilly wallop that marked the best of her previous work, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is nonetheless a sophisticated and gorgeously rendered album.
Review (All About Jazz) : Collaborating with Jeff Beck, Imelda May's kitschy presence as preserved for posterity on the iconic guitar hero's Rock 'n' Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul) (Atco, 2011)is in stark contrast to the sultry black and white portrait that adorns Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Not surprisingly, then, the British chanteuse stakes out an equally sensuous, shadowy terrain on the record, beginning with the opening track "Call Me." The spacious depth of T Bone Burnett's production just about equals the glow in May's voice as she sings this, one of the eleven self-composed songs on the record; it's an effect deepened during the course of "Black Tears," where El Becko's guitar slices through the air in a soft arc behind the woman's voice, that is, when his rhythm chords aren't insinuating their way to the forefront. Unfortunately, the illuminating arrangement there gives way to a more pro-forma approach on "Shoulda Been You," where Burnett's overly-facile touch undermines the emotional honesty of the song and the singing. Some arch rockabilly style guitar (Marc Ribot's?) is only slightly less misplaced than the bell-like tones echoing off in the distance of each refrain. "Sixth Sense" works more movingly because the instruments mirror the emotional undercurrent of the tune, as it emanates directly from May's singing. Hints of Phil Spector-esque production values there blossom in full for "Human," one of the least intimate tracks here. A similar Spanish motif percolates through "How Bad Can A Good Girl Be?," yet it's appropriate to the suggestive theme of the composition, not to mention far less obvious than the singer/songwriter's strain for a clipped vocal phrasing a nuance almost lost in a mechanical backing track. Imelda May turns role-playing to her advantage, however, on "When It's My time," playing the torch singer to the hilt; perhaps not coincidentally, this is the other track here featuring a guest withing the corps of accompanists Burnett usually employs: Jools Holland from Squeeze coaxes something truly soulful from the piano he plays and it's commensurate with the efforts exerted by the woman singing, not to mention the openly-vulnerable lyrics. Unfortunately, the addition of a choir toward the end of the track overshadows the confessional air that permeates it til that point, illustrating the lack of discipline that too often afflicts Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. A cynic might suggest Imelda May might know better given this is her fifth recording, while a healthy skeptic would theorize she gave due benefit of the doubt to a producer with T Bone Burnett's resume. Either way, the winning personality she exudes on "The Girl I Used to Be" posits the thought that she'd flourish in a more intimate setting where her varied charms would become prevail.
Review (Highway Queens) : If you're familiar with Irish singer Imelda May then you might think her new look and sound are a little dramatic. But on Life. Love. Flesh. Blood she strips back the artifice of her rockabilly style and sound to create some brilliantly different disguises. From the opening sounds of Call Me we understand that this is a heartbreak record. All the best singers take pain and put it to use - there's nothing else you can do. Her despair can be heard most clearly on Black Tears, with Jeff Beck. This is the best song on the album by far with its heartsore lyrics and soulful delivery - imagine Patsy Cline at her most devastated and you're almost there. Should've Been You and Human take things in a more soft rock direction and her versatile voice dazzles. The songwriting is so strong throughout every change of tone and direction. The jazz-influenced songs How Bad Can A Good Girl Be and Levitate have a gorgeous sultry vibe. Imagine smoky clubs and film noir soundtracks. The showstopper here is When It's My Time - an old-school gospel number that has a vocal delivery to rival any classic soul sister. Jools Holland plays piano too and there's even back up from a choir. When Imelda sings to the heavens 'I've done the best that I could' you can't help but feel this is a direct expression of her feelings not only about her relationships but her musical history too. There are still some echoes of her previous sound, with the vintage feel of songs like Sixth Sense. However some songs like Bad Habit and The Longing are crying out for a more rockabilly tempo. Perhaps when she plays these songs live she can find a balance between her previous style and the experimentation on this record. By the end of Live. Love. Flesh. Blood it's hard to know if we've finally heard the real Imelda May. Maybe wearing victory rolls and red lipstick every show was just too much effort. Maybe she just wanted to let loose. Whatever the reasons, it is rewarding to listen to her reinvention. Sometimes leaving things behind entirely is the only way to find yourself and truly move on.