Friday, August 19, 2011

Say What You Will About Talent, Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed A Dream Is Still Boring.

The Good: Great vocals, A few interesting interpretations
The Bad: Short, Nothing original, Replays poorly.
The Basics: With a very average debut, Susan Boyle presents I Dreamed A Dream and does little that other vocal artists have not done before her.

Have you ever experienced something so widespread in marketing that when you actually experience it in reality, you know it pretty much back and forth from the outset? Last night, my wife and I were out in Barnes & Noble and we heard a cover of Madonna’s “You’ll See” followed by a cover of The Monkees’s “Daydream Believer” and I turned to my wife and asked “Is this Susan Boyle?” She asked “Who?” I shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” The truth is, I loathe reality shows and had never heard Susan Boyle before, but in the last few weeks wandering around Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and Target, I’ve seen her c.d. I Dreamed A Dream so many times that when I heard those songs playing, I just knew it was her. I was right. So, I went to the music counter of Barnes & Noble and asked them if they would be willing to play the whole album a few times in a row. It must have been a slow night for them, because they complied.

Susan Boyle is the latest flash-in-the-pan celebrity, this one from a British reality show, who is performing works by other artists and wowing people. It’s her fifteen minutes and I’m actually happy for her in that regard. But remember Chant? Check your shelves, I’ll wait. The Benedictine Monks released an album Chant back when I was in college and it started a whole craze. And whatever happened to Fantasia (was it? I saw her on The Simpsons and that’s my knowledge of her. Did she even release an album ever?)? My point is that right now, reality programming is big and the side-effects in music include people who have great voices releasing albums that are huge now but will be in the discount bin by next Christmas. I’m not writing that to be cruel, but the truth is Susan Boyle brings nothing terribly original to modern music and she’s competing against artists and performers – Norah Jones, Sarah Brightman, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand – now who have much more impressive repertoires and voices than she does. And after only a few listens to I Dreamed A Dream (thanks Barnes & Noble!), I’m ready to put Susan Boyle in with Audrey Niffenegger as a one-hit wonder. The difference is that Niffenegger’s first novel had legitimate, enduring value: I Dreamed A Dream does not even have that.

With only a dozen songs occupying forty-three minutes, I Dreamed A Dream is hardly the creative brainchild of Susan Boyle. Instead, this album has Boyle solely providing the lead vocals on each song. She does not play any musical instruments and she did not write or co-write any of the songs on the album. This is somewhat troubling when one considers that “Who I Was Born To Be” is an original track on the album and Boyle does not make any of her own statements on it. As well, Boyle was not involved in the production of the album. As a result, how much of this is Boyle’s musical vision is up in the air.

This is a vocal album, so the instrumental accompaniment is sublimated to the vocals. That said, every song on the album is presented as if it were a ballad, which is why traditional pop songs like “Daydream Believer” stand out. The song is slowed down and the instrumental accompaniment is changed from upbeat guitars to pianos and a string section. There is very little noticeable percussion to the album and the instrumental accompaniment is generally designed to hold up the album and create a baseline emotion from which the vocals spring forth.

As for the vocals, Susan Boyle is excellent in that regard, which is to be expected of such a performer. Susan Boyle has decent range, illustrating a beautiful soprano voice on I Dreamed A Dream and going lower than Madonna did on “You’ll See.” She does a suitably impressive job with “Amazing Grace” (which seems to be a staple song of the genre) and sings sweetly on “Silent Night.” She has a decent ability to emote, but mostly, her presentations are high, slow and melodic, appropriately drowning out the instrumental accompaniment with pure vocal force.

Unfortunately, this is also what drags the album down into average territory for me. Susan Boyle is doing exactly what a vocal performer needs to to establish herself, but I Dreamed A Dream does no more than that. Outside transforming “Daydream Believer” into a ballad, she does nothing that it creative and makes the song her own. To wit, she performs The Rolling Stones’s “Wild Horses” remarkably similarly to how they created it. In other words, she does not put her own distinctive stamp on many of the songs and after a few listens, I was bored because the album was something I had heard before. Virtually every vocal artist performs “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night” and stacking Boyle’s version next to any two other “purists” (i.e. those simply getting through the song as opposed to trying to reinterpret it or do something original with it) versions yields little that is actually different. Instead, this is a very average album.

As for the lyrics, there is nothing particularly astonishing in them. Like many vocal albums, this is a generally inspirational album with songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “Proud” and the songs sound good with Boyle’s voice. Still, they are not the most inspired or fresh lyrics. The original song, for example, has obvious rhymes and inspirational feel when Boyle sings “I can finally say I am free / And if the questions / Led me here, then / I am who I was born to be / And so here am I / Open arms and ready to stand / I've got the world in my hands / And it feels like my turn to fly” (“Who I Was Born To Be”) she does not succeed in making it sound fresh or original. Instead, this is another, fairly bland inspirational vocal presentation.

Ultimately, Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed A Dream is not bad, but it’s not good in any superlative way that is likely to make listeners listen to it after her star fades and it doesn’t set her up for much of a sophomore release that will inspire nearly as much attention as she has now.

The best song is “You’ll See,” the low point is “The End Of The World.”

For other vocally-driven artists, please check out my reviews of:
Celine Dion - The Colour Of My Love
We Are The Fallen - Tear The World Down
Hem - Twelfth Night Soundtrack

If you objected to my assertion that Audrey Niffenegger is a one-hit wonder, please check out my review of Her Fearful Symmetry here.


For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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