It could almost be a flaw from a classical tragedy. A gifted singer, swollen with acclaim and popularity, suddenly believes he or she can write songs. It’s rife among jazz singers who, vexed by trying to make standards live anew, trot out trite ditties of their own, oblivious to their listeners’ attempts to hide.
Cabaret is another area. Ute Lemper, the most potent cabaret artist on earth, could be forgiven for thinking she’s sung a lifetime’s worth of Weill/Brecht, Kander/Ebb, Brel and Piaf, despite having leavened the journey with Piazzolla, Waits and Cave. She could be forgiven for trying penning her own; even be forgiven when they were not in the Weill/Brel class, because in concert they were book-ended by masterpieces, and she was so extraordinary, anyway.
Now there’s no need to forgive. With Forever Lemper, the queen of interpreters, finally proves herself as a composer. She has taken the love poems of the late Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Naruda and let them unfold organically through music.
I use that wretched word “organically” because you can almost hear her singing tunes to herself as she read the poems; hear (as she has said) that these songs came easily rather than being laboured. You can hear the depth of her response to Neruda’s words in her presenting different songs in the original Spanish, or French or English adaptations.
And what words! Neruda’s poems seem to be the very wellspring of life rather than a mere reflection of it. They are almost savagely erotic, yet it is an eroticism that is part of a whole with desperate mortality, brimming love and natural beauty. They flow from a life full of wrong turns, while lived to the drinking/eating/laughing/crying/soaked-bed hilt.
Lemper has generally kept the poems that burn with that peculiarly South American spirit in Spanish (with music to match), set the heart-breaking ones in French (cue sweeping melodies) and set the more bullish ones in English (amid jazzier surroundings). They are not works of musical genius, but they are strong, and pulse with the blood of the poems.
Perhaps without her Piazzolla project she would never had arrived here, because her sound world is alive with bandoneon and guitar, as well as piano, bass, percussion and strings. Needless to say the playing is superb, and the production quality sumptuous.
Her voice can be brittle or can arch up like a spine above mattress. It implores and threatens, cajoles and snuggles, laments and smiles, all the while drawing you into her music, as though she is taking your hands and guiding you through a door. And once there it is not as though the music is wildly unfamiliar, because you can hear the Brel/Piazzolla/Piaf/Cave influences, now twisted together around the molten core of Neruda’s words.