“Sincerely Fearful”: a track from Emma Dean’s new album, Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret
Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret: a record with huge ambitions
I know it makes me a failure on so many levels as a gay man but I’ve never really understood the Kylie phenomenon. Those Stock, Aitken and Waterman years were anathema to me. And give or take a couple of genuinely interesting floor fillers since then – and the lady’s occasional flirtations with jazz and Nick Cave – I’ve always found that tiny sliver of a voice totally at odds with her diva status and the outrageous production values of her arena tours. For such a small talent, she’s had a spectacular career. But now that she’s post-40 and has successfully battled breast cancer, she has also earned her ‘show-business survivor’ stripes. So good luck to her, I guess.
is something altogether different: bold, edgy, clearly determined to plough her own creative furrow and to hell with the consequences, and possessed of a raw, outsize talent that will take some steering. And with a new album – Dr Dream and the Imaginary Pop-Cabaret
– just out, she is in pole position to be Australia’s next big cultural export.
This is a record with huge ambitions – epic arrangements (catch those strings on “Sharks”), swooping vocals (that have had some critics reaching yet again for Kate Bush comparisons), lyrics that plunge with vertigo-inducing speed from existential streams of consciousness to the gut punch of rock balladry and the occasional crude verbal laceration.
Dean herself says, “It’s [the album] about letting go of all the things I’m normally too afraid and ashamed to speak of and unashamedly airing them in song.” If you have sensitive pretentiousness antennae, they’re probably twitching already. And the album’s concept – Dean spilling the contents of her sub-conscious to the eponymous Dr Dream – is no small hurdle, for a start. But once you get beyond that and start listening to the words, the cascade of characters, dark tales, threats, dangers and sensual motifs, is innovative and promising.
It’s a long while since I heard a lyric as challenging as: “Once a thieving scoundrel dared me to steal your underwear. The silk did trickle down your legs to your ankles pink as pigs,” the opening lines to the hymn-like “Thieving Hearts”.
Can’t get her out of my head? Well Dean is certainly a bold and refreshing new voice, and there are several tracks I’ll happily have on my iPod. To be honest, I don’t get Kate Bush so much as Sparks (“Sincerely Fearful”) with a dash of Tori Amos and Berlin cabaret. Dean’s fascinating vocal texture also reminds me very much of Melinda Miel, a performer of dark, bloodstained cabaret material, who captured the imagination of London’s club scene all too briefly in the early 1990s.
Melinda Miel sings “Delirium’s Mistress”: dark, bloodstained cabaret from the early 1990s
Dean has combined idiosyncrasy and a strong, fetishistic visual impact with a promisingly commercial sound, epitomised by one of the best tracks, the anthemic “Thunder”.
At the same time, this points to another hurdle: Dr Dream is a character from her alternative cabaret show, and there is sometimes a sense with the album that the listening experience is only giving you half the story. Not all the songs are wholly effective in a pure audio format. So hopefully, she’ll soon be following that well-trodden path to London and we’ll get the chance to see and hear the complete picture.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to be in Australia this summer, you can catch her as Sally Bowles in Zen Zen Xo Physical Theatre’s production of Cabaret in Brisbane.