Dusty Springfield: Reputation (Expanded Deluxe Collector's Edition)
This might suffer from too much anonymous dance filler, but there are enough reminders why Springfield's place in the all-time vocal pantheon is fully merited.
La Springfield. The British folk singer turned pop icon turned soul empress, whom Elton John reckons was the best white voice ever. Justly lauded for her work for Atlantic at the American Sound Studio in the late '60s, the definitive Springfield performance may actually have been her 1966 version of Carole King’s “Going Back”. Where King settled for singular simplicity and the Byrds opted for sentimental sweetness (in their ‘67 cover, and a reason why David Crosby fell out with them), Dusty took the opportunity to explore the joy and pain of memory and remembrance in equal measure, delivering a master class in restrained emotion.
But that was the '60s, and Reputation -- re-issued now with a bunch of additional remixes and B-sides to Dusty’s singles of the time, plus some associated promo videos -- recalls a very different time, at the turn of the '80s into the '90s. Springfield, worried about potential tabloid exposures about her sexuality and (ironically) handicapped by the supreme ability of her voice to adapt to almost any musical style, had drifted from one label and one career relaunch to another, ending up in a directionless mid-Atlantic cul-de-sac -- shockingly, none of her singles between 1971 and 1986 charted on the UK Top 40 or U.S. Hot 100.
Enter Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, then on an irresistible rise to pop cool and critical acclaim. The Boys enlisted Springfield for their 1987 single “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” as a genuine joint collaboration. An immaculate showcase for the band's arch hit-making intelligence and the glorious soaring dynamics of the ageless Springfield voice, the song reached No 2 in both the UK and the U.S.
Reputation was built on the back of this triumphant return, and the album also recalls that curious time at the turn of the decade when the keyboard washes and ultra-clean production of the '80s still predominated but had also palled -- neither grunge, nor R&B, nor the Stone Roses/Happy Mondays groove mastery had yet to go mainstream. As a result, Reputation has dated. The two other singles (“What Have I Done To Deserve This?” is represented by a harmless disco remix) are the exceptions, and proof positive that Dusty could interpret a mood like very few others.
“In Private” is a confident, strident accusation about hyprocritical love, laid out over an air-tight mid-groove. “Nothing Has Been Proved”, written for the movie Scandal, is a diametric contrast: a bewitching song enveloped in a classic breathless, floaty Springfield vocal (further cloaked with an air of mystery that suited the eternal Dusty, real name Mary O’Brien, persona). Both songs were written and produced by the Pet Shop Boys.
Other parts of Reputation have a helping hand from Tennant and his sidekick Chris Lowe but are mostly helmed by the disco writer and producer Dan Hartman. A couple of the tracks -- notably the moody “Arrested By You” and “Daydreaming” (where Springfield echoes Debbie Harry rapping on Rapture) -- go some way to matching the quality of the singles. Some of the other material lapses into lazy '80s pop/hi-NRG dance. But even these are never, ever let down by Dusty’s vocal performance.
Neil Tennant has described how Dusty Springfield would approach a lyric, someone always looking to invest twists and turns, nuance and variation. In that sense, Springfield’s matchless voice was better suited to the three-minute genius of a Burt Bacharach pop drama or a Memphis soul alchemy, as opposed to '80s conveyor belt disco. Reputation contains too much of the latter, but it was befitting that she should be presented with the chance to deliver some final performances to sit alongside her best work. Springfield died in 1999, and didn’t capitalise in commercial terms on the return to form that Reputation’s hits had given her. But her “reputation” has, rightly, been restored for all time.