It’s the voice. There is no other like it in recent history although there have been comparisons to Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. Still this voice is singular, agile, magnificent and when given the right material k.d. lang is unparalleled as an interpreter of human emotions.
It’s been eight years since lang released an album of original material. 2000’s Invincible Summer celebrated love through a sheen of pure pop production and sun-splashed lyrics. In 2004 lang released Hymns of the 49th Parallel a beautifully somber homage to fellow Canadian songwriters. That record’s sparse production lent an air of solitude to songs that came from a country that is defined by its open expanses. If Watershed is any indication the past half decade has been a time of introspection and contemplation for lang who is now a confirmed Buddhist. It also marks her return from disabling writer’s block. Following the events of 9/11 lang stated that it became difficult to write the same type of frivolous love songs that won her acclaim.
The 11 songs on this release deal with love but not in the unabashed manner of those earlier releases. Perhaps it’s maturity but lang maintains a level of detachment in songs that deal with intimate subject matter and hints that these sentiments are reflections on her personal life. In “Once In Awhile” lang promises a lover “I will drive you crazy, baby/once in awhile.” Life’s balance has shifted since the days of “Constant Craving.” At 46 lang, like many other people facing middle-age, takes a hard look at her life. “Flame of the Uninspired” finds the artist questioning the decisions that have fueled her life. On “Shadow and Frame” lang addresses a darker side to her nature and, mourning the loss of her disappearing youth, writes “the promise of my prime, fading on the vine.”
Watershed is also marked by lang’s ascendancy to sole producer of her work as well as multi-instrumentalist: she plays guitar, banjo, keyboards, percussion, drum programming and harp. Teddy Borowiecki arranges the strings and there are plenty of them. Longtime collaborators Ben Mink, Greg Leisz, and David Piltch are among the guest players. But this is lang’s record and the music reflects the journey’s she’s made through a wide range of genres. Represented in the mix are torch ballads, Brazilian jazz, sophisticated pop, and, of course, lang’s unique take on country. “Sunday” is a jazzy number that sounds like it could have been lifted out of a ‘60’s soundtrack. It’s also one of the rare instances of blatant lustiness on the album. “Je Fais La Planche” is a track that could have appeared on a Bebel Gilberto album; full of lush strings, acoustic guitar and xylophone, it’s a perfect vehicle for lang’s sultry crooning.
And speaking of the voice, k.d. lang is still at the top of her game vocally. On Watershed she prefers to keep it in check, relying instead on nuanced phrasing and deep resonance. In line with the sentiment of her lyrics, lang holds back. There are no long held notes or soaring crescendos. The singer knows what she is capable of and so are we so there’s nothing to prove. lang is content and secure enough to give us enough – but not too much.