Spotlight Album

Love Is a Many-Splintered Thing

Melody Gardot: Ambiguity reigns

By David McGee

 

 

SUNSET IN THE BLUE

Melody Gardot

Verve International

 (2021 release)

 

The year of our Lord 2021 began with a tour de force of romanticism that will be hard to top. Following a 2018 live album and two brilliant concept albums—2012’s The Absence and 2015’s Currency of Man (these being linked by 15 minutes-plus of esoteric sound collage with which one ends and the other begins)–the mysterious and elegant Melody Gardot and her favorite producer, Larry Klein (who brought the artist to the fore of the pop-jazz world with 2009’s seductive gem, My One and Only Thrill and reunited with her on the provocative Currency of Man) returned in January with another luscious production, Sunset in the Blue. Herein the artist in question assays a dozen smokey, sensuous and often ambivalent discourses on love and passion delivered with the breathy tenderness and sublime understatement of someone who’s both in the middle of and apart from the action, as is her wont, and who has consistently defined love as not a many-splendored thing, but rather as a many-splintered thing. Ambiguity reigns.

The peripatetic Ms. Gardot reports to us from Paris now, having fashioned The Absence from time spent in in Brazil, Morocco, Hawaii and Portugal collaborating with composer Heitor Pereira in fusing flamenco, samba and fado styles to the classic pop-jazz she dominates; whereas the more topical Currency of Man emerged from an immersion in the Los Angeles demi-monde that produced unsettling images beholden to both Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locusts and to Tom Waits’s pre-Swordfish Trombones era and is vividly memorialized in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem:, to wit: “…the city burning is Los Angeles’ deepest image of itself. … At the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse…” You would think, given the drift of her narratives into social commentary, Ms. Gardot might deliver an incisive statement on the pandemic and political fires now roiling the whole of her native land and most of the globe. Instead, Sunset in Blue comes not from the City of Angels but rather from her (apparent) new home in the City of Lights. Herein she evokes the Paris of Piaf, Yves Montand, Charles Trenet (whose “La Mer” became “Beyond the Sea”) and Mireille Mathieu, to name a few obvious touchstones, even as it summons the simmering sultriness of Astrud Gilberto in the bossa nova-tinged music so close to the Gardot heart (she sings two songs completely in Portuguese, “Um Beijo” and “Ninguém, Ninguém,” both being the only tunes bearing her name solely as the writer).

‘Um Beijo,’ Melody Gardot, from Sunset in the Blue

‘If You Love Me,” Melody Gardot, written by Melody Gardot and Dadi Cavahlo, from Sunset in the Blue

Therein lies one of the mysteries of Sunset in Blue: given her own considerable gifts as a songwriter, why so many co-writes and covers here? It hardly matters: everything sounds fundamental to the artist’s voice as she’s defined it over the years. On the one hand, for example, while immersed in the sumptuous strings of the redoubtable Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Riddle would have killed for these strings) and further supported by an understated brush drums shuffle and periodic aching interjections courtesy Anthony Wilson’s guitar, she makes the heartbreaking ultimatum that is Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” sound like one of her own wry, arch, Dietrich-like pronouncements, even as its familiar lyrical structure reminds us Duncan wrote the song expecting it would be included on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection album. Conversely, similar sentiments of uncertainty and brazen truth telling inform her co-write with Dadi Cavahlo, “If You Love Me,” wherein the lush strings and Latin-tinged rhythmic undertow featuring the occasional lusty cry of Till Brönner’s trumpet and the aching, atmospherics of Wilson’s Almeida-like guitar comprise a rich backdrop for a plaintive plea to an aloof paramour.

‘From Paris With Love,” written by Melody Gardot and Pierre Aderne, from Sunset in the Blue

‘I Fall in Love Too Easily,’ Melody Gardot, written by Jule Stye and Sammy Cahn for the 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh starring Frank Sinatra, from Sunset in the Blue

Seductive, Mancini-like strings over an otherwise austere backdrop featuring, at points, a touching, lone violin crying out from under the strings, define the album’s (arguably) most affecting tune, “From Paris With Love,” a Gardot co-write with Pierre Aderne. Apart from the first verse, repeated at the song’s close, this meditation reveals a dreamy, rosy embrace of romance in finely sketched verses, each concluding with poetic touches such as “A kiss beneath the moon,” “Drink to life as if there is no end,” “Life is leading us to something more.” That first (and last) verse, though, snaps her back to an ambiguous reality: “Lovers tucked into a quiet café/Sat beneath a shade of red/They fall in love like fallin’ out of bed.” So when she dips into the Great American Songbook, why wouldn’t Ms. Gardot choose to cast “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the jazz standard penned by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn for Frank Sinatra in director George Sidney’s 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh (and since covered by a host of giants on the order of Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Chet Baker, Anita O’Day, et al.) in a pensive style, wherein the sound of her breaking heart is set in sharp relief thanks to a minimal arrangement with only Wilson’s guitar and John Leftwich’s acoustic bass adding shades of blue to whispered self-lacerations such as “I fall in love too terribly hard/for any love to last.”

‘There Where He Lives in Me,’ Melody Gardot, written by Melody Gardot and Pierre Aderne, from Sunset in the Blue

‘Moon River,’ Melody Gardot, written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, from Sunset in the Blue

And yet…and yet…the persistence of amour does indeed abide within, as we learn in another Gardot-Aderne jewel, “There Where He Lives in Me,” a vocal with strings, piano and solemn woodwinds, softly shuffling, its mood ascending and descending as lyrical confessions abound of love both ascending and descending (“There we are always together/even when he’s gone forever/there where he lives in me…”); even more dramatic, the penultimate performance, preceding and setting up “I Fall In Love Too Easily” as the raison d’etre of Sunset in the Blue, also is drawn from the Great American Songbook; in fact, it’s one of the Songbook’s most revered tunes—Mercer and Mancini’s über-romantic classic, “Moon River.” An astringent art-song milieu is fashioned from strings so artfully and quietly deployed between verses as to create an overriding feeling of the track featuring only a spare, lonesome guitar behind a winsome but undaunted Gardot vocal mirroring Audrey Hepburn’s guitar-and-vocal reading in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At that point, wherever Melody Gardot—dream maker, heart breaker–is going, you’re going her way. There’s such a lot of world to see, and love is indeed, as she oft reminds us, a many-splintered thing.

Note: Sunset in the Blue is available in a double-180 gram vinyl edition (well worth the price, as it also includes a limited edition print of artist Pat Stein’s cover painting as well as a copy of Stein’s poem, “Pictures of Light”); as a standard 12-track CD; and in a Deluxe CD package containing five bonus tracks, including a live performance (in Namouche Studios, Lisbon) with Antonio Zambujo on a stripped-down version of “C’est Magnifique,” a track written by Ms. Gardot and Dadi Carvahlo for Sunset in the Blue. At present, the vinyl version is available only on the Melody Gardot UK website.

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