Barbra Streisand: Release Me

Barbra Streisand
Release Me

In her mind she holds the whole thing, the song and its nuances.

She sees where each syllable will fall in her voice, whose contours and abilities she knows more intimately than she knows her lover, maybe more intimately than she knows herself.

She anticipates how she’ll modulate the flow of air to produce the specific timbre she’ll deploy for the word “youuuuuu,” the exact rate of vibrato for that note, how she’ll climb from there to the phrase “start anew” and its falling transformation into the next phrase, the “ooo” of “anew” eliding into “I’ll solve the mysteries .. .” – and only then the calibrated pause! – “ … if you’re the prize.”

She knows where she’ll take liberty with the song’s rhythms, transforming straight eighth notes into different sorts of tuplet – enough to imprint the song with her name, not so much that the effect wears out its welcome – all the way up to the climax, “I’d learn to CHAAANGE the stars and CHAAAANGE our fortunes too!”, a girlish rasp in her voice. (Does she think to herself, “This is the girlish spot?” Even if it’s just a subconscious thing?)

Don’t ask me how close this interpretation hews to the reality of Barbra Streisand’s mind – you’d have to ask her. But that’s the impression you get from this particular song, “With One More Look at You” (from A Star Is Born, recorded in 1977), and the others on Streisand’s new archival album Release Me. Plenty of singers sing their songs with personal nuances (it’s sort of the price of admission), and since fans listen to their recordings over and over, we memorize those nuances as though they were part of the songs. Streisand is different from most pop singers, if a pop singer’s what she is, in that her nuances sound planned rather than improvised. She approaches every song like raw materials that she’ll mold into structures, precise and glistening. In her voice, even a simple song like Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (‘70) sounds like classical art song. She deviates from the notes on the page, but her deviations sound notated; her interpretation is the whole story.

Pauline Kael back in 1980: “When Streisand sings, her command of the audience is in her regal stillness; she distills her own emotions. You feel that she doesn’t need the audience – that she could close her eyes and sing with the same magnetic power.” This rings true, but then how has she harnessed such a huge audience? And it isn’t just a cult audience, though one of those famously exists (ahem “Coffee Talk”). She’s sold tens of millions of albums, and Release Me entered the Billboard album charts at No. 7, making her the only person to score multiple top 10 albums in each of the last six decades. She’s basically the patron saint of Glee, which is funny because it’s true. (Seriously, back in high school show choir I knew a girl with a Rachel-level Streisand obsession.)

The main attraction is her voice, which nobody can deny is a glorious gift that she’s honed into a powerful and delicate instrument. She can coo and belt her way through any song she wants, including Antonio Carlos Jobim’s difficult bossa “Lost In Wonderland” (‘68). She tackles different genres with authority, as when she gives a warm, Anne Murray-ish reading to Larry Gatlin’s “Try to Win a Friend” (‘77). But besides her talent itself, audiences love Streisand’s command, how she radiates the sense that every song must be sung as she is singing it in this moment. Because she uses an array of different vocal techniques without exhausting them, each song becomes a landscape. Even if you know better than to imitate her singing, it’s tempting to memorize the way she sings a particular song, to write yourself into every nuance as though charting your course on a map. My high school euphonium teacher was a Streisand fan. At one lesson, trying to teach me how to temper my vibrato, he jumped up and turned on a Streisand CD, skipping ahead to the exact teachable moment.

Streisand’s style has its downside. Listening to her sing can be like watching a home run derby – an impressive display of physical prowess, but nothing’s at stake. The narrator of her 1967 “Willow, Weep for Me” has never been sad. People like to say she’s “acting” when she sings, but with her unmistakable voice and technique, her unwillingness to let herself go, who exactly is she portraying besides Barbra Streisand singing a song? (Her fine, loose movie acting is a whole other thing.) The most actorly song here is Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s “Mother and Child” (‘73), a horrifically cloying duet between Streisand as doting mother and Streisand as scaredy cat child; both Streisands finally sing together in multitracked counterpoint. The song becomes reasonably interesting if you hear it as Mom entering a psychotic fugue state, a prelude to infanticide. It is not interesting otherwise.

And that’s the other downside: Streisand’s musical taste. For every great selection here – like Newman’s searing “Rain Today”, accompanied by only Newman’s piano – there’s an overwrought cringe machine like “Mother and Child”. The musical theater pieces are exclusively ballads – in fact, everything’s a ballad except for the annoying and childish “Wonderland”, and this lack of variety makes the album more one-sided and boring than it should be. Sometimes it seems like she views life through the prism of This Business of Show. When her relationship ends in the Bergmans’ “If It’s Meant to Be” (2011), she first thinks to ask, “Why was there no applause?”

Of course, if you share her taste or you’re part of the cult, you’ll enjoy this album. It’s well-sung without exception. Three times Streisand sings songs originated by black singers: “Willow”, “Home” from The Wiz, and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” from Hallelujah, Baby! Though composed by White people, “Being Good” is particularly relevant to the African-American experience, since it’s sung by a young black starlet who must “be the best, or nothing at all” just to get ahead. But it’d be a stretch to call these songs minstrelsy, since Streisand simply overwhelms them as she does all others. “Being Good” becomes an ode to her perfectionism; “Willow” studies how to simulate weeping through purely musical devices; and she could use “Home” to open shows at a reconstructed Bon Soir. In Streisand’s voice, every song is about Streisand’s voice.

RATING 5 / 10