When Bic Runga won 2016’s New Zealand Herald Legacy Award and was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame, it marked two decades of work as one of the country’s premier pop artists. Released alongside these accolades, Close Your Eyes sees Runga’s dreamy vocals in play on ten cover songs and two originals, and while it isn’t the kind of masterpiece that won her awards, it’s a gentle reminder of the versatility and skill that earned Runga her place in the hearts of her fans, both in New Zealand and worldwide.
Close Your Eyes starts with its title track, an original composition that Runga takes to dizzying heights as she hearkens back to the sweet sophistication of 1960s Parisian pop and ethereal psychedelia. The chorus is catchy, Runga’s voice is spun sugar against the kaleidoscopic melody, and “Close Your Eyes” carries the kind of high drama that makes it fun to listen. It sticks in the mind, but it doesn’t irritate; the track satisfies and has enough structure to warrant repeat listens. The other original track, “Dream a Dream”, reiterates her flair for vintage yé-yé music, complete with a backing vocal track that emulates a chorus of ingénues.
Her covers span a wider range of genres and eras, some of which Runga handles with more grace than others. Simplicity is key for Runga; when she croons out long notes on the warm, simple backdrop of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time I Saw Your Face”, it gives her clear, soothing voice the perfect platform. A less expected but even more effective match is her cover of the Beach Boys’ “The Lonely Sea”, where Runga’s voice echoes, a divine maritime presence among soft waves of minimal, melancholy violins and achingly sharp drum beats. Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” was practically made so that Bic Runga could cover it here, centered as it is on acoustic guitar and voice, the best skills in her repertoire.
While none of the covers crash and burn—this is a solid group from start to finish—a few do fall flat, lacking any real style from the singer herself. Runga’s voice always feels good to listen to, but covers like “Tinseltown in the Rain” and “Life Will Get Better Some Day” don’t have much to them. They sound more like high-quality karaoke than studio recordings. Her cover of Kanye West’s “Wolves” is harder to categorize as either a standout or a flop. It, like some other tracks, suffers from an oversimplified arrangement that cheapens the track, but it gives Runga’s voice more space for expression than most other cuts on the album.
There’s a double purpose to Close Your Eyes: it allows Bic Runga to pay tribute to songs and artists that she loves, many of which have doubtless influenced her fruitful career, and it also lets her demonstrate how well she can sing and play across the musical spectrum, jumping from Kanye to Neil Young to Françoise Hardy to compositions of her own without missing a beat. It’s a celebration of a stellar career still in progress, and though she’s had more exciting releases in the last two decades, Close Your Eyes is an utterly listenable pop playlist from one of New Zealand’s national treasures.
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