Joan Osborne’s latest, her seventh studio project, is a tribute album. Little Wild One is not a tribute in the traditional sense, the type of record that finds an artist honoring and performing another’s music. The songs are all original with Osborne writing or co-writing nine of the eleven tracks. Yet, the record is essentially, in lyric and spirit, a tribute to several distinct ideas that Osborne pulls together with skill and sincerity.
First, the album is a pronouncement that Osborne continues to feel and exercise an incredible degree of freedom; she is certainly a songwriter who has carved out an identity and remained true to it throughout her career. Of course, Osborne entered our collective consciousness in 1995 with her mega-hit “One of Us”. When an artist has such massive success with a single tune, the history that follows generally proves their place in one of two categories.
The first group consists of artists who achieve their moment of glory with a track that sonically is distinct and separate from the musical persona they’ve created (think Blind Melon with “No Rain” or Goo Goo Dolls’ success with “Name”). These performers tend to either spend their careers headed in the direction of their new audience or wander off the map in order to stay true to their original following and ideals.
Osborne is a prime example of the second type of artist, a performer who finds a wide audience doing exactly what they’ve been doing from day one with a song that expresses well their musical and artistic philosophy. “One of Us” was just that for Osborne, a soulful and earthy rock tune befitting a soulful, earthy performer. Osborne, then, has been able to retain her unique sense of self without having to bend for the audience that found her on MTV or rock radio.
Little Wild One continues Osborne’s ability to showcase her free-spirited ways. The material here enables Osborne to exhibit, in equal degrees, all sides of her musical personality: grounded roots rocker (“Hallelujah in the City”), sultry siren (“Little Wild One” and “To the One I Love”) and bluesy songstress (“Rodeo”).
As Osborne continues to stay true to her core, Little Wild One , accordingly, pays homage to the idea that an artist need not fit into one box or genre to have a singular style. Osborne’s attitude and charisma are the common thread for blues-rock stomps like “Rodeo,” plaintive folk songs (“Daddy-O”) and more straight-ahead pop numbers (the Carole King-esque “Meet You in the Middle”).
Osborne’s style and material choices are so closely knit together, in fact, that the album’s one true misstep is all the more evident. With its groove, active beat and visceral wails, “Can’t Say No” comes off as a less rewarding, less exotic version of Sting’s “Desert Rose”. Osborne almost rescues the track with a quality chorus vocal but, ultimately, the song fails to resonate an album full of songs that otherwise ring true.
The final object of Osborne’s esteem is the idea that New York City can act as a transformative or redemptive location in one’s life. Several songs on the record make lyrical room for New York and the album’s packaging contains photos which appear to come from the city. Yet, the most effective of these mentions give the Big Apple an almost spiritual quality.
Osborne opens the album with “Hallelujah in the City”, which, at first blush, could be any great metropolis or municipality. After she sings of the healing beauties of urban landscapes, evidenced by the “cathedrals of New York and Rome” on the gorgeous, piano-driven “Cathedrals” and expresses the wish “Bury Me on the Battery”, her affection comes into clearer focus.
Little Wild One continues to fill out the picture of Joan Osborne as artist, adding new shades of color to the portrait of a confident and exciting songwriter who is comfortable in her skin yet willing to continue striving for excellence.