Following 2007’s affecting Peacetime and arriving hard on the heels of the recent reissue of 2003’s well-regarded Sings the Songs of Robert Burns album, Eddi Reader returns with her ninth solo record. Love Is the Way evolved out of the bonus-track sessions for a prospective Best Of collection, Reader and her band soon finding themselves with an album’s worth of new material. For a record that originated in such a way, the result is a surprisingly substantial, if characteristically sentimental, set that breaks no new ground but is nonetheless a satisfying addition to Reader’s catalogue.
The album re-teams Reader with her regular group of collaborators including Boo Hewerdine, John Douglas, and John McCusker. (New to the fold is Heidi Talbot, apparently replacing Kate Rusby both as Reader’s harmony singer of choice and in the sentimental affections of Mr. McCusker.) Whereas Peacetime combined contemporary and traditional tracks (including some more Burns compositions), the novelty here is that Reader has avoided traditional material altogether: the oldest song featured is Jules Styne and Sammy Kahn’s “It’s Magic”. The opening track, “Dragonflies”, a Hewerdine composition, sets the mood, with tasteful acoustic guitar, accordion and gentle drums warmly inviting the listener into a song that finds reason for joy not despair in life’s transience. The same tone of acceptance and resignation spills into the next track, “Silent Bells”, Reader reminding the listener that “without new hellos there are no fare-thee-wells / All that we are without love are silent bells”. But the strongest new song here is Douglas’s lovely, dulcet “New York City”, which suggests PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” remade for grace rather than danger, its narrator caught between homesickness and awareness of new possibility in the metropolis. Elsewhere Reader incorporates the occasional jazzy flourish into the album, and “Dandelion” swings safely but pleasingly.
The material Reader has chosen to cover here is interesting and, for the most part, effective. A creditable version of Brian Wilson’s “Sweet Mountain of Love” alternates quiet, atmospheric verses with singalong choruses. Her take on “It’s Magic” can’t compete with Doris Day’s definitive reading of the song, but the spare, understated treatment is fairly appealing. Reader’s lyrical interventions into the Burns canon have also apparently given her the confidence to involve herself in the work of other writers, and “Never Going Back Again (Queen of Scots)” quite charmingly supplements Fleetwood Mac’s classic with details from Reader’s biography (“He told me I was good luck / I’m seventeen in Kilmarnock / I’m never gonna be that again”), effectively turning the song into a personalised commentary on itself. It’s the kind of trickiness that could be disastrous, but Reader’s droll vocal and Roddy Hart’s spry piano-work keep the track fresh and light.
Reader remains a quietly compelling singer: her lilting vocals are never less than appealing, she never over-sells a song, and she sounds relaxed and open here. Unfortunately, her approach also has its drawbacks: Love Is the Way lacks bite and some of its weaker material—Jack Maher’s “Fallen Twice”, Sandy Wright’s “My Shining Star”—does not avoid a slide into slush. There are certainly moments when you wish Reader would drag herself out of her comfort zone and challenge herself with more adventurous song choices and arrangements. Perhaps next time. For now, Love Is the Way proves itself a mostly beguiling collection, albeit one that comforts rather than excites.