Amidst all of the obvious talent that Melissa Etheridge possesses, one of the keys to her success has always been about writing powerfully emotional songs that appeal to anybody. Yes, we know she’s a lesbian. Yes, her relationship with longtime partner Julie Cypher was high profile and among the nation’s most visible gay couplings. But Etheridge’s music is universally feminine, regardless of sexual orientation, and her songcraft has enough honesty and subtlety to appeal to men and women, gay and straight. In other words, Etheridge’s identity as a lesbian does not define her identity as a musician.
But in the case of Etheridge’s latest album, Skin, it’s to some benefit to know something about her personal life. It’s obvious from the songs on this disc that her much publicized break-up with Cypher was an emotional upheaval. Yet once again Melissa delivers, with the same universal appeal, an album full of songs that anyone who’s ever gone through the pain of ending a long-term relationship can relate to. It’s already well established in music that love lost is one of the most fertile grounds for creativity to flourish. Etheridge adds to an already large canon of lovelorn songs a collection of tracks that are worthy of their peers.
In fact, this might be the closest thing to a concept album that Etheridge has released to date. The first track, “Lover Please”, establishes the ground of a break-up and the raw emotions of a relationship ending. Five songs later, we’re still in this realm of loneliness post-relationship and Skin begins to feel like it might wind up a one-emotion show. However, a glimmer of hope has started to seep through the songs and a rebuilding of strength is evidenced in the vocals. By the time we get to “It’s Only Me”, we get the sense that Etheridge is progressing in time to the point where confidence and the future are replacing raw pain. Then there’s “I Want to Be in Love”, speaking volumes about being ready to enter into the world of new relationships. Finally, the album ends with three songs about new love, romance, passion, and rebirth. The whole album can be summed up in the line “It’s an old fire / This familiar desire / But my skin is painfully new” from “Please Forgive Me”. In essence, Skin is a journey through the cycle of loss, pain, regret, reconciliation, hope, and reemergence. If not entirely unique or original, Melissa delivers the journey in her own inimitable style.
Musically, Skin contains elements of her breakthrough Yes, I Am, some of the glam of Your Little Secret, and bits of the quieter Breakdown. She still puts the southern blues timbre of her voice to excellent use, even if it’s developed with experience into something a little smoother and more subtle than the raw energy that made her an instant stand-out over a decade ago. Acoustic guitars still merge with electrics in her standard blend of country, rock, blues and pop. If there’s one thing that distinguishes Skin somewhat from her other albums it’s an increased instance of studio gimmicks and sequenced beats. However, the album doesn’t beat you over the head with its techno influences, but chooses to artfully apply them as subtle hooks that add to the mix. Even with such additions, songs like “Lover Please” and “Walking on Water”, and of course the big, shimmering single “I Want to Be in Love”, will please any fan of Melissa past. Skin also contains some diversity in “Please Forgive Me”, with Etheridge delving into soul territory to deliver an almost deceptively sexy song, and “The Different”, which goes back to her wonderful debut album in tone, but is furthered by a big bass sound and soaring synths.
Melissa Etheridge has lived a lot of life since her self-titled debut in 1988. Years later, she’s become the woman from one of her first successful songs; she has similar features but longer hair. Over the course of those years she’s become a rock star, a People magazine level celebrity, and a mother. Her maturation as an artist and as a person has been traceable through her albums, and Skin is no exception. It’s wonderful to hear her sing, then, on the album’s closer, “Heal Me”, “My battered heart will make a new start / Let everyone know I’ll be coming home again.”