Ladies Sing the Blues

Like Yoko Ono or Morrissey, Björk makes it all but impossible to be dispassionate about her music. Whether embracing exuberant dance beats on Debut or playing with movie-musical conventions on the soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark, she demands nothing less than total engagement, with a voice as unmistakably distinctive as Morrissey’s and an aesthetic as abstract as Ono’s. Björk weaves a cocoon that holds at bay an adult world that constantly challenges the capacity for awe that in her world is the highest of values.

Her new album, Vespertine, is the singer’s most complete and compelling expression of that wondrous worldview yet. The album’s churchy-sounding title is appropriate: Vespertine is nothing less than the Gospel According to Björk. There are breathless odes to the power of love (“Pagan Poetry”), impassioned appeals to seek out safe haven from cynicism (“Hidden Place”), and pleas to find beauty in unlikely places ("It’s Not Up to You”).

Vespertine isn’t just for true believers, though. On previous albums, especially Post, Björk’s joie de vivre was peppered with a grating preciousness. But on Vespertine, with help from an otherworldly sounding church choir and the spare, inventive electronic music of the San Francisco production duo Matmos, Björk finally opens the window on her utopian impulses. Near the end of the sweeping, ethereal “Pagan Poetry,” when the music slowly drops away and Björk quietly repeats “I love him,” as though speaking directly to the listener, she sounds as nakedly emotional as a great blues singer.

Long saddled with the hyperspecific moniker “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige was one of the first R&B singers to embrace hip-hop’s beats, yet her aching voice and despairing lyrics sometimes have more in common with Billie Holiday than producer-steered hip-hop molls like Aaliyah. Blige’s bluesy desperation informs even her biggest hits, like the version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” she recorded as a duet with Method Man, which argues that love can survive even the toughest of times.

Blige is far less convincing when she takes on the sunnier sides of life: 1997’s Share My World was blankly optimistic, 1999’s Mary tediously self-loving (its only high points were the down-in-the-dumps ballads “Your Child” and “No Happy Holidays”). As its title suggests, Blige’s new album, No More Drama, is, in that tradition, a meditation on the singer’s life at its least troubled. More than ever, Blige’s harmonious state just isn’t an interesting place to be: Songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Flying Away” express exuberance of the rainbows-and-flowers variety. Miserable, Blige can be penetrating and profound; happy, she comes off generic and bland.

Inadvertently depressing is Blige’s surrender on No More Drama to producers of the moment like Dr. Dre (on the empty, party-minded “Family Affair”) and the Neptunes (the forced ghetto-centricity of “Crazy Games”). And there’s at least one outright atrocity: “PMS,” Blige’s reworking of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” which transforms the Memphis soul man’s self-effacing love song into an anthem about menstruation.

Blige’s musical compass has always been shaky – her live shows lean toward Vegas bombast – but there’s little sense on No More Drama of the introspective soul singer who nearly a decade ago opened up the charts for individualists like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Perhaps Blige even realizes this herself: On MTV’s twentieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago, she lip-synced to “Family Affair” in hot pants and a headset mike with a pained grimace on her face that suggested she’d rather have been almost anywhere else. A song about that ugly, embarrassing public moment would convey Blige’s blues in a way that nothing on No More Drama can.

Mary J. Blige
No More Drama

Ladies Sing the Blues