When reviewing someone like Tony Bennett, especially when the album in question is a career-spanning compilation of hits, a discussion of what he sounds like is pointless. Tony Bennett is an institution, someone whose name instantly evokes a unique image and a powerfully distinctive voice. Bennett transcends the label of “crooner”, though that is the label he’s most often given—rather, he is an entertainer, someone who knows his audience, and who knows how to give that audience what it wants. He’s been doing it for over 50 years now, and even as he approaches his 80th birthday, Bennett is showing no signs of slowing down, as an album of duets with artists as diverse as k.d. lang, Barbra Streisand, and Bono is nearly upon us.
So, obviously, Bennett is going to sound fantastic on an album of his own greatest hits. This particular collection is called Through the Years, and it’s a (brace yourself) release exclusive to Starbucks. As a survey of some of the highlights of his career, it’s actually not bad, though it’s quite obviously tailored to a certain audience. Of course, this is completely independent of your own personal ethics when it comes to supporting a corporate coffee giant notorious for taking a metaphorical sledgehammer to competing independent coffee houses, but we’ll get to that later.
For now, we stick with the music.
If we could say one thing about the sound of Tony Bennett, it’s that his voice is a marvel of consistency. It is simply incredible that, but for the presence of a touch more rasp (barely detectable, as one of the most distinctive properties of his voice is the gentle touch of raspiness it has always had), it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between 1956 (“Just in Time”) and 1997 (“The Way You Look Tonight”). If you’ve ever liked the man, you’ll still like the man.
So which songs does Starbucks deem worthy to represent the legacy of this particular artist? Well, Through the Years is a bit like Tony Bennett for beginners. Here we hear Mr. Bennett singing songs that pretty much everyone knows, even if they’re songs that Bennett wasn’t necessarily famous for singing. This tendency is particularly noticeable in the inclusion of songs like “The Way You Look Tonight”, from the 1997 soundtrack to My Best Friend’s Wedding, and “Blue Moon”, from 1973’s The Rodgers and Hart Songbook. These are songs that aren’t commonly associated with Mr. Bennett, though the songs are popular enough as done by other artists that it’s very likely that they’ll be recognizable when Bennett does them as well. For their part, “Blue Moon” is a relatively ordinary performance in which Bennett sounds as though he’s coasting a bit, while “The Way You Look Tonight” is a lovely latter-period piece, in which he uses his age to define the song, lilting and swaying as if it’s always been his.
Understandably, these types of pieces are relegated to the end of the album, while Bennett standards like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “The Best is Yet to Come” are toward the front. It mercifully eases us into Bennett’s music with his hits before attempting to endear us to some lesser-known (though still recognizable) tunes from Bennett’s sizable repertoire.
So, as Bennett compilations go, the tracklist is really not too bad. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a poor taste that comes to the mouth when one realizes that it’s being sold exclusively through Starbucks. Y’know, I’m all for capitalism, and it’s a rather brilliant move for Starbucks and their Hear Music label to snag an institution like Tony Bennett, but… the man’s just larger than life. When I hear of a larger-than-life personality such as Bennett (or Dylan, or Diana Ross, or Charlie Brown) allowing an exclusive piece of their catalogue to the great monetary and cultural sink that is Starbucks, a little piece of me dies. It’s hard to avoid that slightly ooky feeling when listening to Through the Years.
That said, if the whole corporate association thing doesn’t bother you, Through the Years is just fine as an introduction to one of the greatest showmen of his time.
Dean Martin and Tony Bennett - Medley