The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Revelling in the lovely lunacy of “I Wanna Have Your Babies,” one of the singles of the year, reassures me that Natasha Bedingfield is one of the very few authentically mad British female pop stars we now have. By “mad” I do not mean insane but the merriment of madness which overcomes a rational mind when faced with the inarticulable but inescapable presence of love, transformation and transcendence. On “Loved By You,” the acoustic ballad hidden away at the very end of N.B., her second album, she gnashes her teeth and spits out the words “evidence” and “difference” knowing that neither truly matters. In “When You Know You Know” she turns her back on hopelessly huge fantasies and trusts in the magic uncovered by the paths of the everyday (“I’d rather find [love] like a penny on the street/’Cos that’s something I can keep and carry around”), and again, in “Tricky Angel,” she reels in her marvel that “you just broke into me and ignored that it wasn’t allowed.”

Saying the “appropriate” thing, playing the accepted role, knowing when to hold one’s tongue, keeping her countenance when dazzled by the light of sunshine sensuality – all of these things Natasha continually fights and argues against. A loosely tied concept album about relationships, it begins with “How Do You Do?” where an Oasis/Kinks guitar strum immediately misleads as it thuds into a pummelling, distorted glam beat and harsh, off-centre synth brass figures while Natasha reverses all the parts (“If it’s weird for girls to give guys flowers/Then maybe that’s a reason to”) and is joyous in doing so, as exemplified by the triple, ascending “Say-a, say-a, SAY-A!” and the plump kiss of her “do” in the song’s title, as well as her dreamily drifting “mmm”s and her chewing of the word “stupid” followed by a conspiratorial laugh. She lays down her manifesto by devoting thirteen notes to the word “connect,” careering up and down before coming to a pause for breath, and then straight back into the chorus, with some careless whistling to top up the cake of pop punctum.

“Babies” meanwhile is the craziest and cuddliest British female pop song since the days of Betty Boo with its deranged calliope, Natasha’s whirling “Whoops!,” her giggle after the word “faking,” the 78 rpm la-las which come in from nowhere (always the best place to come out of), the hints of gleeful stalking (“Trust me it would scare you that I’ve picked out the church, all the schools, all the names”) before she collapses into Daisy Age (“I see them springing up like daisies!”) delightful dementia: “There’s one! There’s another!” she exclaims followed by a rapid octet of “babies” culminating in an “Aaaaaahhh!” as though giving birth. At the fadeout she winks: “One day maybe you’ll find out.”

The rest of N.B. does not quite scale those levels of complete and compelling madness but does prove why Natasha is head and shoulders (and what shoulders) above her alleged competition…Corinne Bailey Rae is too polite, Lily Allen unsmiling beneath her smokescreen of glee glue, Amy Winehouse too accommodating of The Past, Joss Stone assiduously (and so disappointingly) pretending to be mad, Candie Payne the hapless recipient of Simon Jones’ Meccano kit – as though you could reconstruct Dusty from its unsmiling nuts and bolts…her voice constantly adventurous and expressive, even on relatively indifferent songs (her “everyone”) on the dull ballad “Soulmate.” Instead of aiming for needless melismatics she allows her voice to crack, break and plead at the top of her range; witness the high “Oh oh oh”s and the agonised bleeding of “Rubbing salt in my wounds” on “Not Givin’ Up.” Where Winehouse and Payne simply telegraph base intents over pasted together signifiers of a never-existent sixties, Natasha can do a seventies soul ballad pastiche like “When You Know You Know” and make it breathe (and those loopy, slightly disturbed synths impersonating the strings of Philly help also).

In addition it is very clear that Natasha works best when she’s in primary control; expensive names like Patrick Leonard, Diane Warren and Mike Elizondo appear but the consequences are rather flat and uninvolving (the Warren-penned slush fest “Still Here” evidently pencilled in as the big international crossover ballad smash). Elizondo comes out the best of the celebrity writer/producer bunch, if only because he helps turn “Who Knows” and “Say It Again” into girl group Fiona Apple with lots of ingenious touches (the echoed hall of mirrors which prompts the “Can you hold on a bit” section of “Who Knows,” the “Strawberry Fields” mellotron which pulsates on “Say It Again,” the latter also featuring an uncredited cameo from brother Dan), though their best collaboration comes on the unlisted “Lay Down” with its aggressively distorted ambient layers and the ambiguous lyric with its “You ask for peace, I give you war” and “I’m not ready to lay down my arms.” Also worth far more than a mention are her pair of collaborations with Greg Kurstin, half of The Bird And The Bee (more of them shortly on CoM), the oceanic heaven of her multitracked “Lost”s on “Backyard,” nicely countering the yearning lyric (“Your lasso, my tiara/My wand, your plastic bazooka”) and the gorgeous Vocoderised choir of the “I Think They’re Thinking” interlude. Even the relatively routine R&B of “(No More) What Ifs” is coloured in crucially by her broken down “sun,” her extended “c-liff,” and the music again momentarily bumping to a halt on the line “The intro’s looping on and on.”

But she works best when she’s in charge, as on the opening two tracks, and also on “Pirate Bones” where its tale of stubborn resistance to settling for second best is hijacked by electro-clangs, cackling chants of “oh! yeah! oh! oh!,” unexplained minimalist string intrusions and unexpected hammering piano chords, the closing “Smell The Roses” with its spaced-out drumbeats, dissociated finger snaps and Natasha’s delicately delineated “do-do”s – but perhaps most of all on the fabulous “Tricky Angel” where she bouncily yelps about having all her standards and expectations inverted, along with frankly bonkers whistling and cyclical piano line, its dazed, drawn-out chorus – her ecstasy is so overwhelming that every element of every syllable seems reducible to its own, breathless atom, her voice shakily ecstatic, trembling. And when she sings “knocked me on the head” in the final chorus, she is answered by a quartet of rude bass drum thuds (Walker’s “bam bam bam bam”?).

In the liner notes she speaks of the songs concerning themselves with “the highs and lows, laughter, regret, passion, frustration, choosing to trust, faith in what’s still unknown, grace for what is known, questions, insecurity, stubbornness, determination, surrender…I guess you can’t really have any one thing without the other.” But she succeeds in dazzling us as well as herself with what she discovers throughout her journey (and yes, were I still fourteen years old she would dazzle me in ways unspeakable). A creative and (much, much more than) decent British pop album in 2007. I’m paying attention again.

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