Three or four years ago, you had to feel just a tiny bit sorry for Natalie Imbruglia. For a fleeting moment, she was reasonably cool; her video for her cover of Ednaswap's song "Torn" playing in heavy rotation on MTV2 during the first couple months of 1998, with Nat in her pixie haircut doing the whole soulful looks to the camera and goofy dancing around an apartment set schitck. I mean, come on . . . it was charming. Then, MTV2's older, chronically uncool sister station got hold of the song, it exploded on the radio, the song became a staple all year long, and before you could say, "Jesus Jones", she was already being tagged as a one-hit wonder by the end of the year, as people ignored the rest of her half-decent debut album. The Natalie backlash got so bad, in fact, that one high profile music magazine, who, that year, in a last desperate gasp to prove their hipness, rushed Imbruglia's doe-eyed mug onto the cover of an issue, only to see her album sales taper off months later, prompted said magazine to introduce the "Natalie Imbruglia Award for Most Embarrassing Cover" to their annual readers' poll, as if they meant, we were just kidding about that Imbroolywooly chick. After that whole Imbruglia imbroglio, can you blame her for not releasing another album for another four years?
So, yes, Natalie Imbruglia is back, whether you like it or not, with White Lilies Island. You'd think if she had four years to work on an album, it would be just a trifle ambitious at the very least, but after one listen to the entire album, you're left wondering, "We waited four years for this?" It's nice to listen to, it's full of wispy-gentle melodies, good guitar-based pop, and lyrics that are introspective, but not embarrassingly so (unlike Alanis Morissette's Sylvia Plath-aped ramblings), and it's better than most of the empty pop music dominating the charts these days, but despite those good points, White Lilies Island leaves you with a small feeling of underachievement under all that pop sheen.
Not that this album is awful, mind you. It's not; its songs, for the most part, are hummable, sunny guitar-based pop rock tunes played by real musicians, with the odd tweak of trip-hoppy beats here and there. Many people have already commented on how the album sounds a lot like the Sundays, but that theory only really applies to "Wrong Impression", its first North American single. Beginning with a small strings sample, it's full of chiming guitars and the light, shuffling percussive beat that characterized the Sundays' sound, with Imruglia herself sounding eerily close to Sundays singer Harriet Wheeler. Hey lyrics are desperate without being syrupy, as she sings, "Have you ever wondered / What we could've been, if you'd only let me in". It's lightweight fare, but it's instantly memorable, possessing a good hook.
If a comparison has to be made, I would liken White Lilies Island more to the albums by the Scottish band Texas over the past five years (Imbruglia could even pass for Texas singer's Sharleen Spiteri's little sister). "Beauty on the Fire", and the magnificent "Do You Love?" are good examples of effectively blending hip-hop beats and guitars, something that that Texas perfected on their 1997 album White on Blonde. The exquisite "Come September" and "Hurricane" are the best of the album's ballads, competent enough for you to forgive Imbruglia for invoking the tired "I'm falling on my knees" power ballad cliché in the latter song. "Sunlight" returns to the alt-rock of her first album, in which Imbruglia opts for simple optimism instead of Morissette's tired self-help themes: "Too many times we let the things we feel / Get in the way of letting us heal the wounds".
Sadly, those good qualities don't appear consistently enough, and nearly half of the album, while possessing nice melodies, have nothing original to say, and show little growth during the years since Left of the Middle. The maudlin "That Day", which Imbruglia's official bio comically refers to as "Joycian", is a free-verse, coffee house journal, I'm-so-sad-but-I'm-a-plucky-little-woman Lilith Fair cliché that will only appeal to 12-year-old girls (which will only last until their older siblings give them a Sleater-Kinney CD). The ultra-lightweight "Satellite", with Imbruglia's coquettish "doo dadoo da do da"'s are almost unbearable, while "Goodbye" is as by-the-numbers a ballad as you'll ever find, spectacular only in its mundanity. "Butterflies" has Imbruglia branching out into the dicey area of imagery, and proves she's better off writing more literal lyrics, unless you actually think the line "Swallow purple terror candy" is good. I don't.
With White Lilies Island, Natalie Imbruglia is trying to escape the alt-rock It girl label forced on her, and establish herself, according to her record company, as a singer/songwriter. Her singing is good, so she's halfway there; as for calling her a songwriter, until I see a songwriting credit attributed to her and not herself and her five producers (as is the case with every song on this album), and if Imbruglia provides instrumental work here and there (nonexistent here), then maybe I'd give the title some consideration. Right now, though, she's a talented, nice singer who sings smart, nice songs, something there's always room for in pop music, and hopefully White Lilies Island's more inspired moments are a foreshadowing of some more good material to come, something to elevate her above all the cliché's she seems so dependent on right now. It's obvious she's talented enough; let's just hope it doesn't take her so long next time.