Shameful admission time, here at PopMatters: I offered to take this one strictly on the basis of my love for Alison Moyet’s mid-‘80s hit “Invisible”, having never really followed Moyet’s career either solo or in Yaz with Vince Clarke. That track, one of the greats in the pretty packed category of “songs about not being loved back by some jerk that you can’t get over”, is so incredible (particularly Moyet’s vocal delivery) that I figured an album of the same would go over a treat, right?
It might, but this ain’t that, and on some level I didn’t expect it to be. It’s not likely any sane, healthy artist is going to want to spend time 20-plus years later plowing over the same ground that once proved fertile. To her credit, Moyet definitely understands some of the reasons why “Invisible” was such a success, at least artistically. While nothing here is as florid or as cheesy as the tolling synth-bells of “Invisible”, things are definitely as dramatic (if not more so), which suits Moyet’s frankly astonishing instrument. She’s got one of the great voices of modern pop, and has since the ‘80s. Bluesy, earthy or brassy often get thrown about as descriptors, and they’re apt, but they understate the delicacy and versatility of her voice.
What makes The Turn so frustrating is that her voice only gets the kind of setting it really deserves about half the time. The opening “One More Time” (where at times her phrasing is such that you suddenly realize the debt that, for example, Antony owes her) followed swiftly by the plushly retro feel of “Anytime at All” establish that maybe Amy Winehouse should have waited until she had bit more experience and depth of feeling under her belt before trying to summon up both pain and the resolve to move through that pain (it might have done her good, after all, not to have an image to live down to). “Can’t Say It Like I Mean It” is another sweeping ballad that succeeds, all the way into an extended coda that’s almost an anti-“Hey Jude” (although they never quite break into “na na na”s). And the mid-album duo of “Fire” (inspired by, erm, Philip Pullman, although kids reading His Dark Materials might not locate the same vein of carnality Moyet successfully does) and “The Sharpest Corner (Hollow)” show such a facility with self-aware devastation that Moyet’s current work at its best can sit comfortably next to an album like Kirsty MacColl’s fantastic (and semi-recently re-released) Titanic Days. Like MacColl, Moyet makes smart, affecting, at times harrowing pop about adult romance and adult heartbreak, and so like MacColl she’s likely to get overlooked.
Unfortunately, for me at least, the rest of The Turn is devoted to Moyet’s more theatrical side. Three songs, in fact, were written for the play Smaller, which Moyet acted in alongside Dawn French. While I fully admit that others may get a lot out of them, I have to, again shamefully, admit that in general I hate musical theatre. I’m not sure why, but as soon as the music or the lyrics hit a certain mode of dramatic presentation I lose my immersion in the music. And it doesn’t just happen in those three tracks. “The Man in the Wings” is a maudlin love letter to the audience that I can’t appreciate even though I’m part of that audience. “It’s Not the Thing Henry” seems petty as well as overstuffed (from the lyrics I’m guessing he deserves it, but still). As a whole, the album winds up skewing a bit more adult contemporary than I’d really like, although the better half of it shows why even such a dire genre descriptor ought not to be taken as an aesthetic death sentence.
It’s frustratingly hard to grade an album like this, because the other half of The Turn isn’t unsuccessful, or less accomplished than the parts I like. It just succeeds at something I don’t enjoy very much. Which means, yes, you might have to do a little work rather than just accepting the number at the bottom of this review and moving on. If your tastes run that way, this album deserves another point or two from you. But if, like me, Andrew Lloyd Webber makes you want to end the world by fire, then (even though this is much better than Webber) approach with caution, The best moments are well worth it, but be aware that Moyet, for all her talent, is heading in a direction you may not find rewarding.