Over its backdrop of time-tested standards, cabaret is constantly faced with the challenge of reinventing itself. Münster, Germany-born Ute Lemper isn’t the only singer currently engaged in dragging the genre out of its roots in Gershwin standards – Audra McDonald, among others, is championing young composers and obscure songs – but she’s certainly the most striking. Commanding listeners’ attention with the intensity of a dominatrix, she uses the genre’s almost unbearable intimacy to embrace the Weimar tradition of cabaret as confrontation, sometimes peppering her shows with denunciations of the far right in Germany.
Lemper’s star-making role was her seductive turn as Velma in Chicago, but the conservative worlds of cabaret and musical theater haven’t provided appropriate vehicles for her outsize talent. Her recorded work, which hit its low point with an album of songs by New Agey composer Michael Nyman, hasn’t been much better. So on Punishing Kiss (Decca/Universal Classics), Lemper has turned for material – and inspiration – to maverick pop songwriters like Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. As much as McDonald, Lemper is throwing down the gauntlet for nontraditional songwriters, but in a way that challenges more than it comforts. She also makes a case for Costello and Cave as the true inheritors of the ironic, world-weary cynicism of Cole Porter and Kurt Weill.
On Costello’s “Punishing Kiss,” Lemper assumes the honeyed, deceivingly docile voice of a bored, soap-opera-obsessed housewife (perhaps the descendant of the bored, thriller-obsessed housewife of his “Watching the Detectives”?) who confesses, “I favor a good punishing kiss / it helps pass the lonely afternoons.” On “Little Water Song” by Nick Cave, whose songs share Weill’s funereal humor, Lemper sings as a woman being drowned by her lover, “Under here, they’ve given me starfish for eyes!,” repeating “under here” until she submits to futility. Over an ominous string arrangement, Lemper sings as though she’s both infuriated and vulnerable (in a way that Cave, with his pitch-black baritone, never could be), and her phrasing grows more desperate as her situation gets more dire.
Though Costello and Cave are big names, it’s the lesser-known Hannon who makes the most noticeable impression. His band, the Divine Comedy, backs Lemper on the entire album, and its swelling arrangements dramatically blend stylized keyboards with sweeping orchestrations. Hannon’s songs are absurdly camp (“My only crime was passion wild and uncontrolled,” Lemper howls on Hannon’s “The Case Continues.” “If sex were an Olympic sport we would have won the gold”), but they fit in with Lemper’s punk-inspired mission of rattling cabaret’s cage.
At its best, cabaret has always drawn its emotional pull from the shadowy side of the human psyche. With Punishing Kiss, Lemper proves that the music’s heart of darkness thrives not only in Rodgers & Hart but in Costello and Cave.