Imelda May - Life. Love. Flesh. Blood (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
IMELDA May has delivered the album of her career to date with the often dazzling Life. Love. Flesh. Blood.
Produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, and endorsed by Bono, this is a collection of songs that are steeped in classic values, while being intensely personal lyrically. Each song packs an emotional punch, while most also have the distinction of arriving with some blistering instrumentals, including – on former single Black Tears – Jeff Beck.
The album also marks a new direction for May who, in the time since her 2014 release Tribal, ended her marriage of 18 years. May’s new sound sits firmly outside of any sharply defined genre box, widely spanning blues, rock, soul, gospel and jazz.
But while steeped in those classic values, it also breathes new life into that classic sound, with Imelda’s powerhouse vocal as distinctive as ever, cementing her position as one of the strongest vocalists of her generation.
The singer herself describes the record as her most ‘honest’ yet, especially given how her life changed so considerably in the run up to recording. “It’s therapy,” she explains… “Like keeping a diary that a lot of people read. Some of my favourite songs don’t say much, but they reveal everything.”
Evidence of this is found in striking fashion on the heartbroken blues of Black Tears, an early highlight that makes the most of Jeff Beck’s guest guitar. But it’s also to be found in the otherwise upbeat melodies of Should’ve Been You, which juxtapose some almost dowop harmonies with the lamentful lyric: “There’s just one thing before I go… Just who takes care of me? It should’ve been you!”
But throughout, the power of May’s vocals and lyricism, coupled with the classic steeped musical values, impresses. The guitar work on Sixth Sense is terrific, giving rise to a tremendous solo. But the smoky, sultry refrains of May’s vocals also delight, confirming Bono’s praise that there’s “an erotic power here that’s not just feminine power”.
Human sounds a lyrical note of positivity, about chasing away her demons, while delivering the type of retro-tinged soul-pop offering that Dusty Springfield or Duffy would be proud of; How Bad Can A Good Girl Be has a sexy, almost Latino-tinged edge that’s provocative and seductive (“I tried to resist you but I couldn’t, tried not to kiss you but I couldn’t, but I was weak for you”), while Bad Habit has a rockabilly stomp that’s highly energised and guitar-soaked to boot (the solo, again, rocks).
It’s fair comment, indeed, to say that May seldom puts a foot wrong on this LP… only When It’s My Time feels overly familiar and too genre-rooted. But Levitate positively purrs with sexuality and has a classic, almost Bassey-era Bond tone, while Leave Me Lonely again unearths a gritty, edgy rock vibe with some throbbing bass and some slick electric guitar riffs that are tailor-made for bringing out the husk in May’s vocals.
And The Girl I Used To Be ends things on a slow-burning, country-tinged note of reflection that feels disarmingly right, while showcasing a softer, more innocent and spellbinding vocal turn from May. It’s a fittingly brilliant end to an album that looks destined to become one of 2017’s best.
Download picks: Black Tears, Should’ve Been You, Sixth Sense, How Bad Can A Good Girl Be, Bad Habit, Levitate, Leave Me Lonely