Album review – Betty Buckley: Ghostlight

20 Oct

There’s no Sondheim on Ghostlight but in the absence of more current video content, here’s a blast of “Children Will Listen”

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley's atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

Ghostlight: Betty Buckley’s atmospheric new album is effortlessly majestic

I wonder if I was the only one whose heart sunk just a little with the release of Barbra Streisand’s commercially fail-proof duets album. Not because there would be any doubt about the quality – which is as clinically polished and pitch-perfect as we’d expect – but because this great, great artist is treading such predictable water at a time when other mature singers are forging ahead into new territory.

Cue – and all hail – Ghostlight, the shimmering, moody new album from Texas’s finest, Betty Buckley, which sounds positively experimental in comparison.  There has always been a freedom in Buckley’s song choices that, while paying glancing obeisance to her status as a Broadway leading lady, suggests an independence and elegant wilfulness.

She has never been a conventional belter, and in this eclectic selection of standards, torchy ballads and soft rock and country songs, she takes some of the most familiar lyrics in the American songbook to darker, outlying terrain – exposing them to the ghostlight of the title and stripping them back to a kind of minimalist perfection. She is joined in her quest by producer T Bone Burnett, a life-long friend, who is responsible for the album’s stark, spacey beauty.

Looking back to a review I wrote of her 1993 record Children Will Listen for The Gramophone Good Musicals CD Guide, I note my remark that Buckley is “Refreshingly unafraid to try something different… [her] voice is unusual – husky and intense – often falling away almost to a murmur…” I would change little about those observations today, beyond adding that the years have simply brought greater depth and resonance to her interpretations.

She never forces the issue – as these beautiful versions of “Body and Soul”, Bewitched” and “This Nearly Was Mine” aver, pressing all the right emotional buttons without ever going over the top. Heartbreak is only a note away. “Lazy Afternoon” takes on an extraordinary air of mystery, hinting that anything could materialise out of the haze.

But the most interesting tracks fall in the album’s second half. There’s a sublime take on the Jefferson Airplane number “Comin’ Back to Me”, with its exquisite string arrangement, a poignant “Take it With Me When I Go”, and an honest, lyrical reading of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Time Stands Still”. Effortlessly majestic.

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4 Responses to “Album review – Betty Buckley: Ghostlight”

  1. Sally October 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Great review. I felt exactly the same way about Barbra Streisand’s album, i.e. that it was so typical of a later in life performer to make duets album in order to broaden the albums reach (and sales). Betty Buckley has never needed those gimmicks–she’s just extraordinary, as is Ghostlight.

    • Piers Ford October 22, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

      Thanks Sally. I have nothing but admiration for Streisand’s artistry but there’s just no innovation in a bunch of safe duets. As you say, Betty Buckley knows no such constraints.

  2. Fiona Jane Weston April 16, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

    Very interesting post! I enjoyed her performance in “Dear World ” here in London, even though I didn’t totally agree with her interpretation. I’d love to see her in cabaret.

    • Piers Ford April 17, 2015 at 7:42 am #

      Thanks Fiona. I still vividly remember her Stars and the Moon one-woman show at the Donmar – can’t believe it’s 15 years ago! I don’t know if any cabaret is in the pipeline but she has just arrived in London for the Follies concert performances at the Albert Hall on 28th April – really looking forward to that!

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