The first time I turned on the radio and heard “St. Theresa,” (the opening track off Osborne’s 1995 release, Relish) I felt branded for life. That voice, then unknown, hit me upside the head, roughed me up a bit, then mightily and surely knocked me over. I’m still awed by that song, and chilled to the bone by 80% of what’s on that album, on the sheer integrity of Osborne’s awesome voice.
Of course, we’re in a different time and place musically with Righteous Love, Osborne’s newest release. Priorities are different, genres have shifted, and Joan Osborne emerges today as more of a debutante than new girl who has to convince naysayers of her charms. Her fans are different, too — older, perhaps a bit more staid and a bit less adventurous. Maybe it makes sense, then, that album leans much more in the direction of pop or light rock/soul than ever before. Songs contemplate little beyond themes of love, friendship, and faith, in packages that are hummable, digestible, and all together safe. They’re not bad songs, per se — but they’re certainly not mesmerizing, either.
“Running Out of Time,” the album’s undercooked first track, is a handprint for the rest of the album, which relies on hooks and half attempts rather than powerful pushes over the lines. Because Osborne is a very personal singer, you’re supposed to feel as if you’re let into her secret lair, or maybe her diary — but let’s just say she’s edited out all the good parts. The religiously tinged and hymnal “Righteous Love,” has a drama that’s barely believable; the guitars, organs, and background vocals all sound oversynthesized and overproduced. Overall, too many tracks are too little, too late.
But most disappointing is Joan’s voice, which has none of the sorrow, grit, and theater that seemed to be her inextricable signature. As a result, the album sounds forced, not forceful — she lands most of the singing in the midrange of her voice, using none of those crazy, nearly ugly, almost multiphonic sounds that give her vocals character and density. Her lyrics, even when profound (which is rare) lie flat, denied anything that sounds like real energy. Joan could deliver a line like “I was struck down / By your angel face,” (“Angel Face”) with the power of a suckerpunch; instead, it’s much more a light, playful tap. The album’s strongest track, “Safety in Numbers,” is reedemable because it hints back to what Joan does best — make her voice sound witchy, crazy, and totally cool.
It’s hard to believe that anyone thought that this album had remarkable potential, to shake the public or produce a surging. Much more likely, this album will convert a cadre of Joan disciples into a disparate mass of non believers.