When k.d. lang last put pen to paper to craft original songs, we found her frolicking under the sun with her “Summer Fling” on Invincible Summer (2000). Since then she’s recorded with Tony Bennett (A Wonderful World, 2002) and explored the songbooks of fellow Canadian songwriters Jane Siberry, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, among others, on Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004). On her second album for Nonesuch, lang turns inward, dodging the slings and arrows of love, romance, hope, and doubt on Watershed. It’s safe to say that she emerges wiser and victoriously unscathed.
lang is often cited for her musical versatility. She possesses a veritable passport of different musical expeditions stemming from her major label debut Angel With a Lariat (1987). Watershed is being touted as the strung together threads of Absolute Torch and Twang (1989), Ingénue (1992) and everything she’s explored in between. The album is more an expression of lang’s innate musical sensibilities rather than a contrived mash-up of genres. The appearance of a banjo here, a drum machine there, then, makes perfect sense. What might account for the authentic, seamless production is the fact that lang produced the album herself, the first time she’s undertaken such a role on a studio album. After more than 20 years of recording, she has a keen sense of how to record herself and lead her excellent unit of musicians.
k.d. lang’s voice is the dominant hue in a kaleidoscope of sounds on Watershed, illustrated to wonderful effect on “Je Fais La Planche”. She insulates what were once skeletons of songs with the rich epidermal coating of her own expressive instrument. The tracks were recorded as if she’s whispering in the listener’s ear, with warmth and intimacy permeating the notes. “Once in a While” and “Close Your Eyes” best exemplify this dynamic with the latter veering towards hypnotic as lang’s somnambulant voice induces a peaceful fall into dreamland (“I’m a dream that answers to you”).
Lyrically, lang lays bare her frailties. The emotional topography of “I Dream of Spring” is like a sprawling moor. “In cold, dark places/ I dream of spring,” lang intones hopefully, but the strings indicate something a bit mournful. She’s a lone figure walking across a landscape engulfed by her craving for love. The standard of beauty embedded in this composition is consistently met throughout each of the eleven tracks on Watershed.
“Thread” is pretty much a perfect song, in part because its musical architecture so accurately mirrors the lyrics. “I had you in my web/ Now here I am instead/ Hanging by a thread,” she sings. The interplay of bass and guitar conveys the gentle weaving of a web and the pregnant pause underscores lang’s predicament. “Thread” falls short of four minutes but it travels across a number of emotional and musical vistas in that time.
Similarly, “Flame of the Uninspired” covers much territory in a modest amount of time. The tune begins with the faint sound of a beating heart and reveals lang’s acute insight into her own. Her self-analytical, self-critical lyrics are among the most poetic on the album:
On the cusp of compromise
to living hell, I slipped and fell
Such a frail and fragile place
this egg and shell, upon my face
lang opens up her heart and her voice in the chorus. To hear how she resolves the notes feels like a warm blanket covering a cold shudder. “Shadow and the Frame” is a sparse, exquisite production where, again, lang appears to wake up to herself. “So I find myself and what I became/having nowhere else to lay the blame,” she sings, elegantly wringing the truth from each word. The stunning string arrangements by Teddy Borowiecki, which are central to this album’s appeal, cast a little light on that “shadow”.
Traversing a whole different musical terrain, lang takes listeners to the intersection of ’60s-era Herbie Hancock and Astrud Gilberto on “Sunday”. She dreamily siphons meaning out of the words with her ethereal phrasing. The way she inflects “waiting” — “Six days a week/ Waiting/ I spend…waiting” — leaves no doubt as to what exactly she’s waiting for.
The first-take simplicity of “Jealous Dog” finds lang completely confident in her own voice, not having to pile on superfluous studio wizardry to amplify the lyrics’ wry sentiment. Such simple charms are multitudinous on Watershed. While it may not necessarily break new ground musically, the album excels in drawing listeners closer to lang’s truth. As always, her luscious tone infuses each track, caressing words like no other vocalist. Ultimately, Watershed marks the welcome return of one of popular music’s most beloved stylists.