For a pop star to manage to strike a balance between respectable artist and a penchant for covering lots of songs and make them her own is quite unique. Natalie Imbruglia may not still be topping the charts as we approach her 20th year as a singer but she still has a large following around the world and “Male” shows that she is still has it as she transitions into an acoustic rock lady after her more pop laden previous albums.
The concept of “Male” is that she has taken ten tracks from men and covered them. It’s not a new concept, Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls really drilled that concept to its core, but Imbruglia’s got a nice thought process going. “Instant Crush” is the single and a fantastic track. The fast paced acoustic guitars, rich string arrangements in the second half and the fast paced vocals of the chorus remind me of a calmer more mature “That Day” in some ways, although they sit at very different ends of the rock spectrum. “Cannonball” takes that song that was everywhere for ages and pushes it into a piano based track. What starts out as quite a melancholy verse then ends up surprisingly upbeat for the choruses and interludes and so the two feel a bit at odds for me despite Natalie’s lovely voice and the rootsy arrangement. “The Summer” however is a country bumpkin revelation. The chorus specifically is sassy and cute with the interplay between a call and response styled arrangement. The country undertones isn’t something she’s really touched before and is works really well.
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is a delicate ballad that is just sweet enough to not make you wince and the guitars are beautifully arranged to the strings. “Goodbye In His Eyes” brings the bitter to the sweet though and its this and angry rock that Natalie usually does best. It’s also at this time that I began to wonder what else was behind the covers of men concept. The tracks themselves are mostly about love and breakups and so actually when sung from a woman’s perspective, most of them aren’t really significantly changed in perspective. Maybe this was the point, but it showed me that the concept in large, didn’t work, although it was amassing a lovely breezy collection of songs.
Breezy is exactly what “Friday I’m In Love” is all about. A much needed change of pace see’s things speed up into a barn jig with plenty of ukulele, marching drums and even a Cowgirl “Woo” in the middle. It’s catchy, fun, light and a mini party with plenty of shouty lyrics in the middle eight. “Naked As We Came” is a short track and I really like the way how it has a choral effect going on with the vocals and the minimal keyboard synths that back up the acoustic guitar melody. It’s such a simple track but it’s one where simplicity utterly works for the best – Natalie is so subdued in her vocals too – it’s dreamy from start to end. “Let My love Open The Door” brings out the marching band, some brass and woodwind for a rousing track that doesn’t quite hit the big bang I was hoping for because the overall style of the album keeps it lacking a big bass thump that the final chorus needed. It’s a great track but I can see it being a better live performance where the bass guitar can rock it. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is then in complete contrast a bass led track! Minimal is the word here and it’s fine as the melody still comes through but with the high production of a pop album, it doesn’t sit quite right to have so much silence in the speakers.
The final trio of tracks kicks off with glisten folk “I Melt With You” which continues to push the folk, western theme of guitars that’s evident throughout the album. It’s interesting that all the backing vocals are men throughout the album only here does it feel a bit cheesy. “The Waiting” brings out wooden sticks, harmonicas and steel guitars to really ram it home and then “The Wind” is a gentle acoustic guitar and vocal piece that has the guitar so close to the speaker that it on the first note of the second part of each riff it seems to peak the recording and make a weird noise. It’s a quirk rather than a ruining feature of what is a lovely closing motif.
As a concept album, Male doesn’t work at all. It’s all very covering songs of the opposite sex but what new perspective did that bring to most of them when they are all love song? However as a musical album, it’s a new, folk and country styled approach for the majority of the album and Imbruglia’s voice and arrangement team work very well in this arena. She’s got an uncanny way of choosing good covers and this album is testament to that. Now let’s hope we get some new rocking material soon!