Review: Katie Melua – Album No. 8
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really know where to begin with this. I’m supposed to be a writer but Katie has left me lost for words with her new album (though only temporarily, I warn you). I had high expectations of it simply because I know how much her music means to her, how studiously she approaches the whole process, and how insanely talented she is. Even so, she has exceeded every one of those expectations and left my jaw so firmly on the floor that I’m wondering if the Earth’s gravity has suddenly doubled. So, without further ado, let me try to dust myself down and articulate my thoughts on this immaculate collection of flawless compositions.
A Love Like That
If you’re going to write a statement album to showcase your songwriting talents then why not open with something that sounds like not merely a Bond theme but a template for a Bond theme. “A Love Like That” is so good it needs to have a Bond film made for it–and with a title like that perhaps it could be time to introduce the first female Bond? It only takes a few bars for you to feel like you are slinking back into your cinema seat as the curtains unveil. The dramatic and classy orchestration tell you you’re in for a cracking adventure. Katie’s vocals sound like crushed velvet, sultry and sophisticated. The curly-haired teenage girl of Call Off The Search has gone, replaced by a woman of the world that knows how to make the best of her talents. As the sumptuously arranged orchestra swirls around her she grabs you by the throat and softly seduces your ears. She only loosens her grip at the end of the song when she leaves you crumpled and gasping on the floor as she saunters away “doodling” to herself. And listen carefully to Katie’s carefree doodling–you’ll hear the odd staccato burst of five repeated notes which is reminiscent of the start of “The Man With The Golden Gun”. This stuff isn’t just thrown together you know–producer Leo Abrahams has a wonderful feel for sound textures that only a strong background in Ambient music can give you, and he has collaborated with Brian Eno who is one of the best in the business. What a strong opening to the album.
A complete change of tone for “English Manner” but the fact the transition is so smooth and seamless from “A Love Like That” tells you all you need to know about the skilful production on this album. This track is one of Katie’s strongest ever lyrics–mystical, whimsical and raising more questions than it answers. It’s one of those that you could choose to interpret simply yet clearly has hidden layers if you want to dig deeper–one for the fans to discuss their conspiracy theories about deep into the night. I know I’m going to make Katie feel a bit uncomfortable now but some of the lines here are Dylan-esque. “The dresses billowed with fear and lust” and “you’ll see some good if you extend the trust” would not look out of place in a song by his Bobness. Mind you, I guarantee you the late, great Sir Terry Wogan would have been poking gentle fun at the line in-between those two “she handed me a cloudy glass and then said”, given his penchant for misheard lyrics, since it really does sound like “she handed me a cloudy glass of Lemsip”.
Leaving The Mountain
This track is so beautiful you can hardly bare it. I’ve never really understood why Katie hasn’t trusted her own lyrics–she wrote “Faraway Voice” as a teenager, and tracks like “Spider’s Web” and “I Cried For You” not long after–but frankly, on the evidence of this album, she can never again question her ability with words. Her lyrics are a level or two above most other songs in the charts. “Leaving The Mountain” is a case in point: she doesn’t merely tell a story, she paints pictures in your mind, evocative images filled with nostalgia and longing. The music here is suitably dreamy too. The song may be about Katie’s childhood memories of a trip with her father in Georgia but it stirs childhood memories for me also. Just the opening soaring flute puts me in mind of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, which is one of my earliest musical memories, and as a lover of mountains I’ve bought into this song by the end of the first line. This is exceptional music.
An aptly-named track. The tempo rises again and it feels like getting out of bed in the morning, taking a deep breath as you wonder how to face the new day, then throwing open the curtains and seeing beautiful sunshine and blues skies flood into your life. In fact, the melody is somewhat deceitful in the feelgood-factor it sweeps you along in since the lyrics are bittersweet with reflective verses sandwiching the more upbeat chorus. This is where Katie’s peerless ability as an interpreter comes to the fore–you automatically believe what she says so you don’t need minor keys and melancholic chord progressions to feel the sadness. When she sings “it’s so tempting to give up now when the air is getting colder” you get her meaning. The craft that has gone into these songs is awe-inspiring.
Voices In The Night
The sax intro to “Voices In The Night” takes you by surprise. Then Katie starts singing and almost instantly you are transported to some classy jazz lounge; you can almost see and smell the twirls of smoke from Gitanes cigarettes mingled with the woody alcohol of Jack Daniels. Once again we are seeing the sultry Katie in the red velvet dress from “A Love Like That”, only this time James Bond is sat in a dark corner watching, drops of blood on his lips permeating his Martini. If you’d asked people at the time of Call Off The Search to predict what Katie would be doing two decades later I think many would have had something like this track in mind.
Maybe I Dreamt It
It’s almost two years since I first heard this track, when Katie teased us with it on her 2018 Tour. The audience instantly knew they were witnessing something special, so much so that they were giving a standing ovation before Katie had the chance to deliver the final line after waiting in bemusement for thirty seconds or so. On the album version, the gap before that final line has been greatly reduced, perhaps to try to prevent people from giving standing ovations to their record players. Interestingly, the Gori Women’s Choir aren’t involved with the album version despite featuring strongly in the live performances. I don’t know the reason for that but this is a song that will deliver however Katie packages it, as demonstrated by her lockdown performances of it on her sofa just accompanied by her brother Zurab on guitar. An acoustic version is included on the Deluxe edition CD.
Oh my. What a peach. This is something truly special. It begins with plaintive piano notes from Leo Abrahams that put me in mind of James Horner’s “Portrait” for the Titanic soundtrack, which is appropriate because Katie then proceeds to paint a beautiful portrait in your mind. She may be singing about Batumi, but these words will resonate with everyone for whatever home means to them. If I have even the slightest scintilla of criticism of Album No. 8–which I don’t, really–it would be that the Gori Women’s Choir only appear on one track. Thankfully, it is this one, and when they gently kick in here the hairs on the back of my neck are off. For all that is awful in this world, it is music like this that makes you determined to fight till your dying breath to make it a better place. I’m pretty much in pieces before the end of this song but the heavenly chiming of a church bell in the background during fadeout simply finishes me off. In fact, I’d probably have closed the album out with this one since it takes me a while to compose myself after hearing it. A masterpiece.
Your Longing Is Gone
Yet another seemingly effortless track of aching beauty. I say “seemingly” because although Katie’s vocals put you in mind of a swan serenely gliding along a glassy lake you just know there’s a whole lot of frantic paddling happening under the water. And there really is a lot going on here. The orchestration, arrangement, musicianship, writing and engineering is all of the highest quality, as it is throughout this extraordinary album. This song puts me in mind of the easy-listening heyday of the late sixties and I could easily imagine Burt Bacharach writing this and Dionne Warwick trilling out “too good to be true”. I’m beginning to wonder if the whole album is too good to be true; perhaps it contains subliminal messaging that will turn us all into Katie’s zombie servants. At this point, I wouldn’t even care.
Okay, back to that smoky jazz lounge. It’s 2am, the place is almost empty. James Bond is now dancing slowly with the improbably beautiful Russian woman he knows will attempt to assassinate him next day but not before they’ve both retired to the hotel room to do things best left to your imagination. The song they are dancing to is “Airtime”. As soon as she’s done, Katie heads back to her flat, climbs out of the smoky red dress and takes a long luxurious bath whilst reflecting on life and love. The only thing missing from this scenario, for those of a certain age, is the image of her devouring a Flake whilst the phone rings unanswered in the background and a lizard scampers across the floor. But she can relax now, knowing her sultry red dress has done its job for another day. Pure class.
Remind Me To Forget
And so we come to the final track of the album. It is the morning after. Katie is stood cradling her cup of herbal tea and gazing out of the window at the gently falling autumn leaves. Her life is changing and she’s thinking of a bleak winter ahead yet comforted by the thought of the colourful spring that will be right behind it. The lyrics here are clear and honest–no hiding, no deliberate ambiguity, just the cold reality of a relationship over. It’s a song that may bring a tear to a few eyes yet it is underpinned with that sense of hope that the past is gone and the future is there to be written.
There isn’t a weak track or “filler” on Album No. 8. It is brimming with quality from start to finish. History will declare it to be a masterpiece, but history is always slow on the uptake; I’m declaring it a masterpiece here and now. Whatever lyrical demons Katie may have been fighting must surely now be banished forever and I look forward to hearing more of her dreamy words in future. I have no hesitation in awarding this album the full 5 stars. In fact, I’m tempted to give it 6 and to hell with convention.
Favourite track: Heading Home