Not content with having two Irish No. 1 albums, having become the darling of UK tastemakers such as Jools Holland and having recently played for Barack Obama, Imelda May remains a woman on a mission. Underneath her immaculate retro stylings dwells a steely determination to prove that blues and rockabilly are not dead styles in need of revival but rather they represent living music as relevant today as in the ’50s. Although she is down-to-Earth enough to record a tune called “Proud and Humble”, her achievements up to now are substantial; unleashing a little more Mayhem can’t do her campaign any harm.
This third barrage was originally released in Ireland and the UK in September and October of last year, respectively, spawning an impressive four singles. As the next targets for Decca’s slow international release schedule of the record, US listeners can expect to enjoy May’s trend of increasing confidence and verve in the context of a broadened sonic palette, expanding to include country rockers and an off-kilter folksy blues number. Whatever the style being played, however, May’s polished and powerful voice is always at the forefront of proceedings, and it’s as compulsively listenable as ever before.
That blues song, the literally-titled “Kentish Town Waltz”, attracted a lion’s share of the critical attention upon Mayhem‘s European releases and for good reason – it’s a significant and accomplished departure for May, eschewing her core sound to slow the pace not for her usual purposes of seduction, but instead for bittersweet remembrance. The song’s narrative-driven, autobiographical lyrics detail the difficult times May and her husband and guitarist Darrel Higham experienced living in the titular area of North London. The result is occasionally spellbinding — the only shame is that a version featuring Lou Reed on additional vocals, released as a B-side, does not appear here among the bonus tracks.
Except for the two more-than-competent country-inflected numbers, “Eternity” and “Proud and Humble”, May and her band otherwise remain true to their core repertoire of upbeat rockabilly and slower balladry. The album opens with a particularly engaging salvo of rockers climaxing with the title track, which entertainingly paints a picture of a romance gone violently awry. However, in a somewhat curious and disappointing move, the album’s finest rocker is relegated to the position of a bonus track. Although a version of the paean to body parts “Inside Out” does appear in the main track listing, it’s much slower and altogether less effective than the remix, which injects some invigorating energy.
“Kentish Town Waltz” is a strong step forward in terms of making May’s slower tracks almost as compelling as her upbeat work, but on Mayhem the softer side generally continues to play second string. “Too Sad to Cry” feels like a minor misstep, too self-consciously glum to withstand repeated listens — fortunately, the propulsive “Let Me Out” brings the main body of the album to a classy conclusion, not least because of Higham’s dynamic solo.
Mayhem represents a significant step forward in the development of a genuine talent. May gels superbly with her experienced band and together, they are becoming confident enough to veer further away from their influences and create a distinctive sound of their own. One of the things which is most exciting about this record, however, is that it leaves the listener with the impression that May’s development is not yet complete and that she has ways to go before the true sum of her powers is brought to life. In the meantime, barring a couple of odd track listing decisions, Mayhem is an essential listen for those who believe, as May does, in the living, breathing powers of rockabilly and the blues.