Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sophie's Fall From Her Path To Greatness: Wilderness Sinks!

The Good: Many of the lyrics, Voice, Poetry, Thematic elements
The Bad: Overproduction, Lack of passion
The Basics: While not Sophie's strongest lyrical or musical album, Wilderness suffers from the current trend of overproducing artists. I blame Gigi.

For some time, I considered that perhaps one of the reasons the new album by Sophie B. Hawkins was not resonating with me was that in her prior three albums, I had discovered a delicious amount of angst that I could revel in simply by listening to her songs. Wilderness, her fourth album and first released exclusively through Trumpet Swan is noticeably devoid of angst. But then, I thought about my writing and the diversity of it. I have always respected artists as they evolve, not simply expecting them to fall into the niche that I met them in. So, if Wilderness was Sophie's happy album, more power to her.

The problem is not, then, in the fact that these songs are less tortured than her earlier music. The problem is that musically, Sophie B. Hawkins was headed in a direction. Her debut, Tongues And Tails, was lyrically impressive, but musically somewhat unsophisticated, circumstances she changed in Whaler by evolving musically. On Timbre, Sophie B. Hawkins created a virtual sampler of sound with music ranging from simply pop rock to goth superhorror to sultry jazz. She teetered on the edge of a perfect album and I went to see her in concert as she did small venues and I was impressed by her direction.

Enter Wilderness, an album I had eagerly anticipated for almost five years. It was August 1999 that Timbre was released and while it was not a commercial success, the momentum of Sophie's music was a force. Where did that force go? Wilderness is a surprisingly bland pop-rock album. There, I've said it. It's pop-rock and it is disturbingly uninspired from a musical perspective.

I blame Gigi. Gigi Gaston is Sophie's manager and the executive producer of Wilderness. Gaston also is responsible for the simply terrible video for "Walking In My Blue Jeans" on Timbre (a video which may be seen on the DVD The Cream Will Rise). Gaston's video was a throwback to the early 1980s videos using primitive visual effects without reason. She took one of Sophie's best songs from Timbre and made a video that had no statement whatsoever.

I feel secure in blaming Gigi for Wilderness because like Gaston's unsophisticated (pun intended) video for "Walking In My Blue Jeans," just about every song on Wilderness sounds like it came from a recording session in the '80s. For the record, Sophie's debut album was released in the early '90s and there is the distinct sense of being 1980s on so many of these songs. What do I mean by that?

Quite simply all of the songs, save "Sweetsexywoman" have an overproduced sound that is repetitive and musically overshadows the amazing voice of Sophie B. Hawkins. "Sweetsexywoman" has a jazz sound, but as it progresses, the stark, wonderful jazz riffs are replaced by more and more instruments. Every song on this album thinks it needs to be big and loud and full of sound.

That's not my Sophie.

Moreover, the troubling aspect of the album is that almost all of the songs go in the same direction. They begin with Sophie and an instrument and after a few lines, they add a lot more instruments, trying for a big (but not anthemic) sound. So, even on the song "Angel Of Darkness," just as I had gotten hope that there was a song that had a simple sound of Sophie and a piano (I think, I honestly cannot be sure that's what it is), but when she hits the refrain, the sound is joined by guitars, more forceful drums, and backing vocals that gut the lyrics. "Angel Of Darkness" could easily be one of Sophie's best songs if she let it be, if the sound mirrored the lyrics. This is an acoustic song and on Wilderness is comes out as an over-instrumented pop song that could have been sung by The Bangles.

"Angel Of Darkness," however, perfectly illustrates that my prejudice against Wilderness is not simply a rejection of Sophie's happiness. Lyrically, Sophie lays down poetry that still moves me, like "Oh why did I give you the / Key to my heart / I don't have another and I / Wanna break these chains apart / My soul is free / To fly through the worlds above / But my feelings still wait for your love." Sophie, as always, has soul and she has a wide vocabulary to express amazing depths of emotion. In "Angel Of Darkness," her persona has found and lost love, but - unlike some of Sophie's songs - she once had love. My point here is that Sophie's growing emotively and most of the songs illustrate that.

On the thirteen-track album, there are twelve different songs (the thirteenth is a remix of "Soul Lover") and most of them are upbeat. All but one, "Feelin' Good," was written by Sophie. Outside the conga-like "Surfer Girl," they all sound like poems written by Sophie, illustrating genuine emotion and a clear ability to express that. Sophie continues to use unpredictable rhyme schemes, save in "Blue" and the album's opener, "Beautiful Girl."

"Beautiful Girl," perhaps, illustrates the fundamental problem with Wilderness. Despite the somewhat predictable rhyme scheme (alright/light and down/round and room/bloom being examples), Sophie's message is lost beneath a cacophony of instruments. "Beautiful Girl" sounds like a song that could appear on a commercial for just about any of the WBs melodramas. And Sophie is better than that.

So, why pick up Wilderness? If you want pop-rock that is better written than most anything on the radio, Sophie delivers, despite the somewhat retro sound. And on songs like "Soul Lover," Sophie's amazing voice actually breaks through the production. Sophie sings about love and in Wilderness it seems like she is singing about mostly happy things. She has found love and she is singing about it. There are dancable songs like "Meet Me On A Rooftop" and there is the aching, if strangely up-tempo "Angel Of Darkness."

After the musical and thematic diversity of Timbre, the homogeneity of sound and form on Wilderness seems like a massive step back for Sophie B. Hawkins. And while the album illustrates yet again that there are more instruments available to pop-rock artists than the guitar, bass, drums and piano, Sophie uses too many of them too frequently here to have a sound that is anything beyond a strangely desperate attempt to put as much together as she can. Sophie's strength has always been in her lyrics and her voice and with her voice too often drown out in repetitive sounding riffs and crescendos, it is almost impossible to recommend this album.

The reason I do, ultimately, recommend Wilderness as a middle of the road pop-rock album is that despite its flaw, it is better written poetry to music than any other female rockers on the charts today. And hey, if you miss the '80s, this is your chance to hear something new that sounds like it could be from there. Best song is the passionate "Angel Of Darkness" while the weakest link is the strange, sunny sound of "Surfer Girl."

For other works by Sophie B. Hawkins, please check out my reviews of:
Tongues And Tails
"Right Beside You" (single)
The Cream Will Rise (doscumentary)
Live! Bad Kitty Board Mix


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

© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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