Mention the name "Natalie Imbruglia" and the first couple of things that will come to most people are probably a remembrance of her being the one-hit wonder who did the song "Torn" back in the 90's, as well as a recollection of her doing makeup and hair commercials for print and television a few years ago. In fact, she has carved out an undesired niche as possibly the most under-appreciated pop artist of the past ten years, at least certainly in North America.
The cursed blessing of immediate success in the music industry seemingly left Imbruglia with nowhere to go but down. "Torn" was one of the biggest radio hits of its decade, with the album it was from, Left Of The Middle, selling six million copies worldwide to date. In 2001 she followed it up with the far superior White Lilies Island, which has moved 1/6th the number of copies her debut did. Island is, in my opinion, one of the best pop albums I've ever heard, if not one of the best albums I've ever heard. Yes, I'm aware of how preposterous that sounds and my musical credibility be damned - until you've sat down and listened to it (which most of the world hasn't), how do you know I'm wrong? 2005's Counting Down The Days release was a further step in artistic excellence and achieved great success in the UK, going to number one and having the "Shiver" single become the most played song on British radio that year. Differences with her record company followed, leading to the puzzling release of a greatest hits collection in 2007 (Glorious: The Singles 1997-2007). Such a compilation was obviously premature, but significant if only for the inclusion of a number of strong new tracks, including three that ranked among the best in her catalog ("Glorious", "Against The Wall", and "Be With You"). It wasn't a surprise that the album was not well-received everywhere but the UK.
Which brings us to her latest studio release, Come To Life. The album has endured an extremely painful birthing process, experiencing several release delays which have now pushed back the street date to February (tentatively) in Britain and North America. In October 2009, a physical CD release was granted to only a limited number of international markets, including Imbruglia's native Australia. It was a major flop. Fingers pointed at a misguided choice for a first single ("Want") and poor promotion by the record company and Imbruglia herself, who cancelled promotional appearances.
The album is a tale of two sides (almost literally). The first five tracks cover Imbruglia's familiar pop territory before venturing down a different, more experimental path for four of the last five songs, an obviously conscious decision indicating that while she's still happy to play to her strengths, there's new musical avenues she wishes to explore. The stylistic split also feels like a nod back to the days of vinyl, in the pre-playlist era.
"My God" is the first track, with Imbruglia delivering a great vocal performance on top of an insistent drum beat, jangly acoustic guitars, hand claps, and various layers of musical shading. Next is "Lukas", which marks the first of two unused Coldplay tracks on the album. Coldplay vocalist Chris Martin's influence is all over Come To Life - he acted as a sounding board to Imbruglia and helped sequence the running order of the songs, also stating that the band had "given her the best Coldplay song ever" (referring to "Lukas"). Produced by Brian Eno, it sounds like the prototypical Imbruglia song (more shimmering acoustic guitars and huge pop harmonies). "Fun", the other Coldplay leftover, is the album's strongest song, a moody meditation on failed romance that builds into a grandiose toe tapper with orchestral touches. The upbeat "Twenty" is the album's second best song, another track that tastefully makes use of strings (or synths that sound like strings) to add another interesting array of sound textures to Imbruglia's sound. The acoustic "Scars" is a little on the lightweight side, both musically and lyrically ("I climbed the walls/You hit the bars/I am from Venus/You are from Mars"). It's still highly listenable, but I must concur with the multitude of fans who found this version of the song coming a weak second to the superior, higher energy demo version of the song that appeared online some time ago.
The shift in musical direction for the album's latter half isn't too overly jarring, it just feels a little too much like Imbruglia is courting the dance club audience with an electro-pop sound similar to that of fellow Australian Kylie Minogue. "Want" offers the best evidence of this, another Martin co-write along with Imbruglia and her ex-husband (Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns), among others. It's a soulless, empty shell of a song that is done no favours by an ultra repetitive bass sequence and chorus. "WYUT" is quite possibly the worst song Imbruglia has ever recorded. It's one of those tracks that doesn't even require a second listen - you just know immediately it'll never grow on you. Ditto for "Cameo", a reminder of how bad most 80's synth pop was. The atmospheric "All The Roses" is the lone holdout as far as sticking close to her traditional sound and not surprisingly, it's the only song on the last half of the album that you'll want to return to on further listens. Final track "Wild About It" is another oddball, with its lilting shuffle and big, sing-along chorus.
In an age where music is so readily accessible online, having a new release floating around in cyberspace for months while the record company gets its act together (and in the meantime giving consumers who can't purchase the product the option to just steal it instead of waiting) is clearly just bad business. Loyal fans (such as myself) will pick up the CD whenever it comes out, but that's a tiny minority, especially on this continent. As a commercial endeavour, Come To Life looks to be dead on arrival, which is a shame. It may not be Imbruglia's best work, heavily front-loaded as it is with the best material, but it deserved better.