Irish singer Imelda May started her career as a fiery rockabilly filly whose spitfire vocals electrified audiences during the first decade of the 21st century. She began to diversify artistically during the 2010s, putting out the T Bone Burnett produced soft rock/Americana Life Love Flesh Blood (2017) LP and a critically acclaimed spoken word poetry EP, Slip of the Tongue (2020). May is much more popular in Britain and Europe than she is in America. U2’s Bono, musician/television presenter Jools Holland, and Prince Charles of Edinburgh are among her more notable fans.
May’s latest album, 11 Past the Hour, seems a deliberate attempt to widen her audience in the US. The music is much more conventional than her earlier records and would easily fit on FM radio and Spotify playlists aimed at Adult Contemporary audiences. Let’s face it. Rockabilly has limited commercial appeal (quick, name me three rockabilly artists under 30—chances are you couldn’t even name one!). Many of her original fans have accused May of betraying their affections because of her exploratory journeys into different genres. That’s clearly silly and specious criticism. Musicians should be encouraged to take risks and try new things.
But it is true that 11 Past the Hour lacks the fire of her previous rockabilly records. It’s not just that the old style is played faster with more gusto. May delivered the vocals with passion and enthusiasm. She doesn’t seem to be having fun on her latest album, even on songs about pleasures of the flesh such as “What We Did in the Dark” and “Made to Love”. Indeed, “Made to Love” provides an interesting example of the new album’s problems. The song is ambitious both musically and intellectually. It includes contributions by Rolling Stone’s Ron Wood and British-born Nigerian activist Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. The intentions are good. The lyrics address the plight of the world’s poor and those discriminated against because of their sexual identities. Its very universality makes the song “meh”. “I am every person that you meet,” May sings over a steady beat. There is no tension, sexual or otherwise.
When there is drama, such as on the allegedly George Floyd inspired “Breathe”. (Please note that there are no specific references to Floyd in the song.) The build-up to a climax seems cliched. May’s voice gets higher, and the drums get louder as the song rolls on. But nothing really happens. The last lines go, “What to do? What to do? Oh what to what to do?” The song was written before the recent verdict surrounding Floyd’s death, but the lyrics seem even more indolent as a result. While “Breathe” may or may not be preaching acceptance and inertia. It’s also not a clarion call for action or justice.
Despite the album’s flaws, 11 Past the Hour does have its merits. On “Just One Kiss”, which features Oasis’ Noel Gallagher on vocals and Ron Wood on guitar, May’s voice sexily slithers through the sultry lyrics (“Send me to heaven, baby / With your lips, yeah”). She continually changes her intonations to show the intensity of her desire. The title track showcases May’s ability to create a noir-type atmosphere by singing in a hushed, breathy voice with clipped phrasing. Sadness and sorrow seem to flow from her soul. The other cuts may suffer from being generic, but they reveal May’s ability to sound professional. As mentioned, this album would fit right in on many modern stations. Only time will tell if this record gains the Irish singer more fans, but it should satisfy many who enjoy today’s radio-friendly music.