Madeleine Peyroux: “Bare Bones”
Madeleine Peyroux possesses the world’s most uncanny impersonation of Billie Holiday– a fact that is brought up any time the former’s name is mentioned, and one that she is probably sick of being reminded of. Maybe that’s why Bare Bones, the singer’s fourth album, is also her first to be marked by a serious, concerted effort to establish her not just as the keeper of an old flame, but as an artist with a voice that’s all her own. For the first time ever, Peyroux doesn’t select a single piece of material from the Great American Songbook– there isn’t a standard to be found– but, rather, pens every song on the record, sometimes alone but usually with a co-writer. She’s more than just an interpreter here, and that alone qualifies Bare Bones as the Madeleine Peyroux album that is most thoroughly and totally hers.
Which is not to say that she takes on the role of auteur; though she places her own stamp on everything here, so, too, do her collaborators. Long-time producer Larry Klein is at the helm once again, and he co-authors many of the album’s cuts, bringing a balance between vocal jazz and singer/songwriterisms that brings Peyroux one step further from Billie Holiday and one step closer to Joni Mitchell. Peyroux’s friend Julian Coryell, on the other hand, pitches in with the carefree, flirtatious opener “Instead,” a gently swinging jazz number so good-natured and organic it wouldn’t have sounded out of place alongside the standards Peyroux recorded on her previous albums.
The record’s finest cuts, however, come from a pair of very special collaborators– Walter Becker and Joe Henry. Becker, for his part, helps out with the title cut, a navel-gazing semi-autobiography that runs closer to unadorned sentiment than anything he’s ever been involved with, but his best work here is on the gently funky “You Can’t Do Me,” a rambling, rollicking jazz-rock number in the vein of Steely Dan that revels in Becker’s trademark wit and cutting wordplay; it’s a song that delivers the attitude and humor that’s long been missing from the bulk of Peyroux’s work. Meanwhile, Joe Henry helps out in “Love and Treachery,” a quintessential Henry composition– which is, of course, a good thing. He and Peyroux work together to mine Henry’s favorite themes of love and addiction, and the song’s dark trappings work just as well here as they might have on Henry’s own Tiny Voices.
On individual tracks, it’s easy to hear the specific influence of Peyroux’s co-writers, but the album’s strength comes largely from the fact that it isn’t just a collection of songs, but a loosely thematic, linear album that traces the singer’s own soul-searching and quest for truth and love through periods of sadness and heartache. It’s a sort of spiritual autobiography, and that makes it feel like it is distinctly Peyroux’s work, an album that represents her character, her interests, and her story. And she tells that story with honesty: In the title cut, she admits to hearing but not understanding the Gospel, but other songs find her engaging in some genuine acts of spiritual inquiry, giving the album a feel of authentic self-discovery.
Befitting an album that finds Peyroux stepping out on her own as a songwriter, the album pitches its tent a bit closer to singer-songwriter terrain than ever before, which has the twofold effect of giving it more variety but also causing a song or two to fall a bit flat, needing a bit more of the swing and sway she demonstrated on past albums. That said, the album’s achievement is evident by the fact that, song for song, it holds up well against any of Peyroux’s past albums; these new compositions prove to be just as creatively fertile as the oldies she mined on fine records like Careless Love and Dreamland, and the overall picture is one in which Peyroux is, more than ever, speaking with her own artistic voice, stepping out from the shadows of giants and establishing herself as a gifted writer and performer who only grows more interesting as her aspirations grow more ambitious.