A good chanteuse is never drained by heartache, she’s fueled by it. But when a singer measures out her pain or confusion in tidy teaspoonfuls, and sounds as if she might fall asleep even before her audience does, you know something’s wrong. La grande passion becomes la so-so passion, and the listener feels like a bedmate who, at the suggestion of l’amour, can muster only enough enthusiasm to open one eye and roll over. That’s the side of the bed on which country-pop singer k.d. lang puts us when she tries her hand at lounge pop on Ingenue.
The fourth major-label release by lang is a drastic departure from her previous country-flavored work, not only because it represents a shift in style, but because it shows such a plummet in energy. Her voice still has the luster of coffee-colored pearls, but you never hear the meaty growl of ”Big Boned Gal,” from her previous album, 1989’s Absolute Torch and Twang, or the simmering restlessness of Absolute‘s ”Didn’t I.” Despite some pretty arrangements — notably the Western-swing shuffle of ”Save Me,” the only Ingenue tune that could be classified as country — most of the songs sound pale, pinched, and tired. It’s as if lang and songwriting/producing collaborators Ben Mink and Greg Penny strove so hard to get ”sultry” right that they pooped themselves out.
It’s often hard to know what lang is getting at, and not just because her languid phrasing provides no clues. Most of the songs are tasteful to the point of being flaccid: In ”Wash Me Clean,” lang’s restrained acoustic-guitar strumming might have sounded dreamy if her voice didn’t drag through the song like a canoe paddle idling in the water. Lines like ”Wash me clean/Mend my wounded seams/Cleanse my tarnished dreams” are supposed to soothe like a lullaby, but lang’s loginess is merely stultifying.
Given Ingenue‘s sleepy-time languor, it makes sense that the two songs that work best are the ones whose sheer campiness could be annoying: ”Miss Chatelaine,” with its sidewalk-café accordion accents, could be the theme from a ’60s French comedy about a happy-go-lucky heartbreaker who surprised herself by falling in love; ”Still Thrives This Love” features swelling strings and clarinet flourishes only slightly less overblown than the song’s title. Both songs buy into hokeyness whole hog, but at least they’re alive, and their broad musical smirks give Ingenue a lift. They energize lang, too — you don’t feel you’re held hostage by her numbing sincerity.
The more serious lang is especially hard to take on a dank song called ”Season of Hollow Soul,” in which even an electrifying vocalist couldn’t pull off lines like ”Sour the fruit of neglect/the core of my doubt/Deprived are my veins you infect/with or without.” Lang recites the words as if she were plodding through a bog: With its grandiose, thumping chorus of la-la-las, the song would be right at home in a tawdry 1920s Berlin nightclub revue, performed by a blasé siren in bedraggled spangles. ”Season of Hollow Soul” makes it hard to think of lang as anything but a country singer moonlighting as a white-bread Marlene Dietrich — and Ingenue as anything but a lounge act that lounges more than it swings. C