One of pop's greatest voices walks back to the spotlight on an album produced by Steve Van Zandt with songs by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, Jimmy Webb, Linda Perry, and others.
By the time Twenty Feet from Stardom came out in 2013, Darlene Love’s appearance in a doc on backup singers may have puzzled some people. Surely, this must be about the singers who backed Love up, right? Yet the singer of “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” and “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” has had surprisingly few big hits to her name, in part because that name was obscured, singing credits deviously shifted to the Crystals (“He’s a Rebel”, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”). But even the hits originally released under her own name were, for a time, ungenerously considered part of an undifferentiated “Phil Spector sound” despite Love having a vocal signature at least as iconic as the busy arrangements beneath. Thus there’s more than just a knowing wink to the title Introducing Darlene Love. Despite following a small number of other solo albums (the last non-gospel or Christmas-related one came out in 1988), this is likely the first album that Love has ever released to a wide culture of music fans who know her as the legend she always should have been rather than the footnote she once was. Sadly, while Love’s singing can still knock you backwards, this “introduction” would make for just as confusing a debut as it does a reintroduction.
Often ebullient but aggressively inconsistent, Introducing comes across as if Love and producer Steve Van Zandt lost control of song selection halfway through recording. The backstory is that Van Zandt, who’s been collaborating on and off with Love since the ‘80s, solicited contributions from pop songwriting’s best, challenging them to write big enough for Love’s massive voice. But the results betray its more piecemeal origins, with fewer than half of the songs written specifically for Love and this project. It’s a shame because most of the high points on the album derive from the new material.
Naturally, Van Zandt managed a couple of Love-appropriate anthems from his pal Bruce, and Springsteen doesn’t disappoint. In a full circle move, “Night Closing In” clatters and swells both like the Darkness on the Edge of Town-era classic pop-oriented outtakes on The Promise and the original Spector songs that inspired them in the first place. With easily-identifiable arrangements, subject matter, and even drumbeats, ‘60s Spector is prime pastiche material; it’s easy to imitate, difficult to embody. Since Born to Run, however, it’s been part of Springsteen’s songwriting DNA and, on “Night Closing In”, he, Van Zandt, and Love come about as close to capturing Spector’s Brill Building period magic as anyone ever has. The other Springsteen song, “Just Another Lonely Mile” doesn’t accomplish anything quite so grand, but Love’s assertive lead takes what might have been Bruce in his Working on a Dream filler mode to a higher place.
Elvis Costello also puts his '60s pop fandom at Love’s disposal on two songs, including the single “Forbidden Nights”, a grown-up version of Spector’s teen romances. Love’s still-gorgeous tone and timbre are indisputable, but she’s also a spectacular interpreter of Costello’s lyrics, often a beast for others to sing (“My boooody was hungry / I could not get enough / But my soul was finally satisfied / With the redemption-of-your-love”). Love also covers 1994’s “Still Too Soon to Know” as a duet with fellow Spector alum Bill Medley. Costello’s Brutal Youth original is minimally arranged, uneasily delivered—a low-key musing on infidelity and its fallout with artfully deranged dynamic shifts. Love, Medley, and Van Zandt play it completely straight as a lush ballad, squeezing the tears out of a song that previously hid them under nervous tics.
Costello and Springsteen are hard acts to follow, of course, but that’s not quite the problem with the rest of Introducing Darlene Love; it’s more a cumulative issue. For instance, Van Zandt’s “Among the Believers”, a deep cut from his own Voice of America is a fun opener, an inflated Philly soul groove that gives Love plenty of room to show off her remarkably well-preserved pipes. But if Introducing is Love’s chance to finally make an album equal to her talent and cultural standing, why is she covering a song that was originally buried eight-deep on a Little Steven album from 1984? “Believers” and several other songs here, including a by-the-numbers cover of “River Deep, Mountain High”, would settle in nicely on a stronger overall release, but here they’re forced to serve as anchors when Introducing threatens to drift off into questionable territory. Linda Perry contributes the sunny “Love Kept Us Foolin’ Around”, which lands right in a surprising sweet spot for Love, tracing an uncharted pop progression from Burt Bacharach to Huey Lewis to Jellyfish. It’s a tasty trifle that immediately gets lost in the po-faced pomp of “Little Liar”, a Joan Jett/Desmond Child power ballad inexplicably resurrected from 1988. A Jett cover could nicely underscore the girl-group continuity (imagine a Spectorized take on “Fake Friends” or “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got”), but choosing a cut for Darlene Love from Jett’s hair metal period is basically perverse.
The provenance and quality of these songs are all over the map, and Love’s voice and Van Zandt’s focus on lush production aren’t quite enough to make Introducing cohere. Love can’t scrape the corniness from Jimmy Webb’s “Who Under Heaven”, because it is corniness incarnate, a save-the-children plea constructed exclusively from clichés with a string-stabby, up-tempo bridge so 1983 that it retroactively imagines a world where Frank Stallone had more than one hit. But at least Webb’s song is interesting in its failings; a Stax-style horn section can’t rescue Michael Des Barres’ “Painkiller” from a cookie-cutter progression and lyrics like “you’re my painkiller” and the equally vapid “you’re my painkiller” (to say nothing of Des Barres’ witty elaboration: “you’re my painkiller”).
Adding to the overall discontinuity, Introducing is being billed as Love’s first secular album in 30 years, and this is only approximately correct. Van Zandt and Love simply save the spiritual songs for the end, finishing on a thoroughly serious cover of gospel singer Walter Hawkins’ “Marvelous Thing” and a thoroughly silly Van Zandt original “Jesus is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’)”.
With Love being one of pop’s greatest (if oft-unappreciated) singles artists, maybe it would be appropriate that Introducing Darlene Love reflect the pre-album era LP format of a few glorious singles with unobtrusive filler, although "unobtrusive" would be an improvement in some cases. There are indeed a few singles here that, in a just world, would put Love back on the charts, but, as far as late-career comeback albums go, Love deserves so much better.