If Frank Sinatra is up in heaven, kicking back with a bourbon on ice after the big show we call life, he’s probably listening to Anouk’s Sad Singalong Songs. I’m not joking about Frank. Anouk’s vocal phrasing and beautiful tone on this album make her a singer’s singer. Her technique is flawless and she seems to have a natural instinct for melody by singing through the right lines at the right times. Appropriately enough she starts by laying out “The Rules” – rule number one, there are no rules, and rule number three, “When in doubt there’s a door.” The girl is not to be messed with, and the music is bold and driven to match. In the background wedding bells ring to possibly suggest if the man gets it right, things may be permanent.
But apart from the opener, the songs do turn out to be sad, singalong songs, and it is female crooning taken to the nth degree of perfection. “Pretending As Always” and Eurovision entry “Birds” are downbeat but catchy, and Anouk’s singing is incredible. From time to time the listener may catch a hint of Dutch accent ensconced in beautiful vibrato, which somehow makes it all the more appealing. “The Good Life” is a little more complex due to the subject – “Time’s ticking and it’s moving forward / Turns boys into men, it’s awkward / The good life.” Even though Anouk could sing the manual to a Honda Civic and make it sound like a Ferrari, it helps when a suitable lyric appears to display the depth of Anouk’s voice: “Time to hate and a time to love/ Time makes me wait for god.”
Sinatra sang songs for “Only the Lonely” and Anouk’s got a similar approach here – she wonders in “Are You Lonely” whether a past lover is getting lonely “in the shower all alone”, but the reality is, if he’s in Holland anyway, he’s probably happily singing along to an Anouk song; she’s a major star in her home country, and Sad Singalong Songs contains the kind of material you want to belt out from the bathroom.
And yes, Sinatra would be pleased with a song title like “Stardust”, but you have to wonder how many men would be willing to volunteer to rise to the challenge set down – “Will you fly as free and fast as my love can / Tell me who you are just let me know / That one day you’ll be shining your light on me / And I’ll wait patiently inside the dark.” Frank took the challenge with Ava, but not everyone is Frank, and Anouk is in some ways somewhat of a handful. According to her Wiki biography, as a teenager she experimented with drugs, ran away at the age of 14, and now has four children of her own. This makes the concern expressed in “Only a Mother”, with its spoken intro and ‘50s backing vocals, quite understandable. But fathers can struggle too, and can equally lie awake at five in the morning dwelling on mistakes we’ve made, so maybe she should have dropped the “only”?
Whilst Anouk’s biography may give the listener something to hold on to when interpreting the album, it’s probably a mistake to latch on to it. ”Kill”, for instance, has a character wrestling with herself not to “kill that man / He could be the one that brings you gifts for Christmas,” yet Anouk doesn’t strike me as being materialistic nor a violent offender. Overall the choice of songs must suggest something though, and on this album the common thread seems to be the darkness we all inhabit from time to time. In “Birds”, Anouk sings that all she needs are “trees and flowers and some sunlight”, and nature is seen as the great redeemer as the singer admits in “I Don’t Know Nothing” that she’s “overwhelmed by modern days”. There’s a bit more hope in “The Black Side of My Mind” as “The black side of my mind is getting weaker / The black side of my soul is white,” but deep-down the darkness lurks.
It would be easy to worry for Anouk. She’s got a voice to die for, she probably should have won Eurovision, she undoubtedly deserves more success outside Holland, and the lyrics on Sad Singalong Songs border on the depressive. But I think she’s going to be alright, and in the back of mind I can see her somewhere in the sunshine riding her bike on the streets of the Hague, her children following behind her.
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// Notes from the Road
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