You think of Britney and, chances are, you think of the private school fantasy of “Baby One More Time”, arguably (for better or worse) one of American pop culture’s more iconic moments from the close of the last century. Or maybe you think of her, graduated from jailbait tease to full-on force of nature, suggestively dancing with that snake entwined around her on the VMA’s stage. Or perhaps, living in the moment, the first image that pops in your head is that shockingly bald head recently splattered across tabloid covers, accompanying accounts of reported nervous breakdowns and child custody battles. With Christina, it’s most likely the “Dirrty” clip, with Ms. A. greased up with what may or may not be motor oil.
You think of Mandy Moore and… what? You draw a temporary blank, right? You might think of “Candy”, her rather generic breakthrough hit. But probably not. It was something of a blip compared to Britney and Xtina’s mega-hits, and if you’ve paid the least bit of attention to her output since, you know it was decidedly atypical of what she’s about, that it was more than likely a half-assed stab at cashing in on the late ‘90s teenpop boom. It’s not that she’s necessarily flown below the radar screen; girl’s A-list all the way. Perhaps she’s just a little smarter than the rest of the pack. In 2007, Moore, unlike most of her early career peers, does not at all resemble a train wreck—and, really, there’s something to be said for this fact alone.
My simple guess is that she just likes music—making it, performing it, listening to it—more than they do. It’s a common sentiment among rappers, for example, that they don’t even need to make records, that they could leave the game at any time and coast on their millions. It’s just something to do, a means to an end. I tend to get the same vibe from most of today’s biggest pop stars not named Justin Timberlake (or Mandy Moore). It’s telling in itself, I think, that Moore has established herself as a pretty solid actress, and could, at this point, clearly navigate that tricky career gear-shift, but still returns to music with plucky enthusiasm.
It’s a good thing, too, because she’s capable of brilliance. Moore’s self-titled 2001 collection is one of the most ambitious and through-inspired pop albums of the new millennium. You probably didn’t notice, though. For whatever reason (lack of a monster radio hit? inadequate label promotion? plain bad timing?), Mandy Moore moved scant units. In fact, I slept it on it, too, until my wife mentioned it being one of her favorites. On her recommendation, I checked it out, and was blown away by tracks like the lovely “You Remind Me”, the ethereal, Eastern-tinged “Saturate Me”, and the furious, club-ready “One-Sided Love”. It’s something of a minor masterpiece.
Wild Hope is nothing of the sort, yet it has its moments and its charms, chief among them the overriding sense that, like it or not, this is the music that Mandy Moore wants to make right now. And while I happen to prefer Mandy the would-be pop star to Mandy the would-be folk singer, I respect her instincts either way. She’s through competing with Britney, Xtina, Jessica, et. al. She wants to be Chan Marshall for people who don’t read Pitchfork, and, at the same time, Trisha Yearwood for people who would never tune into CMT—an admirable enough venture. Naturally, she isn’t as good as either at this sort of thing, but she’s still a heck of a lot better than Norah Jones or Vanessa Carlton.
The new album’s title track is its finest moment, a spooky, quietly gorgeous gem. It sounds a little like, say, Marshall’s “Maybe Not” off You Are Free in its stripped-down melancholy, but more closely resembles Keren Ann’s best work—Starbucks pop made dreamily sublime. Lost inside / a painting of a city on a hotel wall”, Moore sings, “Days go by / wasting golden hours in the fall”. A touch awkward, granted, but we’ll take it as a hint of promise that Moore (who had at least a hand in writing every song on the record) is maturing as a thoughtful lyricist, and more importantly, that she may yet make real waves with this singer-songwriter gig.
As for the former half of the job, she’s already there. She’s a tremendous singer, but the sort of tremendous singer whose skill is rarely commented upon when discussing tremendous singers. This is precisely because Moore’s most compelling vocal performances are marked less by glass-shattering histrionics than by control, an assured command of the range she does possess. Take the rendition of “Have a Little Faith in Me” on her 2003 covers album, Coverage. What might’ve (and probably should’ve come off as a lame stab at recycling a played-out karaoke standard somehow registers as legitimately poignant. This is due entirely to that voice—wonderfully breathy, emotionally expressive but never over-the-top—and that expert control.
It really is a thing of beauty, and it goes an awfully long way on Wild Hope, rendering pleasant-enough numbers like the AOR “Looking Forward to Looking Back” and the Shania-ish “Ladies Choice” memorable while redeeming near-clunkers like “All Good Things” (which has nothing to do with the Nelly Furtado track) and lead-off single “Extraordinary” (which has nothing do with the Liz Phair track). Needless to say, however, this album isn’t exactly selling gangbusters. It debuted at #30 back in June, and has since dropped inconspicuously from Billboard’s top 100. No bother. She’ll act in a few more movies, head back in the studio, and return to making the music she feels like making. In the meantime, here’s to the unsinkable Mandy Moore.