The career arc of an aging pop star is an interesting proposition. Having been commercially successful and culturally relevant in their formative years, those on the wrong side of 30 find themselves faced with increasingly limited options in terms of where they can take their creativity and still hope to retain fans beyond the most die-hard. For some, this means simply more of the same, rehashing old favorites and/or continuing on with an established template, virtually running it into the ground. Others will attempt material more “age appropriate” in an attempt to hold on to their aging core demographic. This generally proves the most successful approach. Here is where you get the seemingly endless number of Baby Boomer former pop stars delving headlong into the Great American Songbook, attempting to tap into the inherent longing for a misperceived simpler time that conjures memories of (deceased) parents and the preceding generation and what, in hindsight, is seen as a more idyllic way of life.
And while this seems to be the most commercially viable route, there is yet a third path that few seem brave (or is it foolish?) enough to take: the genre crossover. Relatively rare, some artists will simply turn in their pop palmarès and hope for the best changing courses late in life. Granted these moves are sometimes logical extensions of an already established career, something along the lines of maturing into a sound (see: Conway Twitty). But there are also those that come as something of a surprise—something so far removed from the style in which the performer worked that it causes listeners to do a double take.
In this, Petula Clark, pop princess of pre-Swinging London, would be the last person one would expect to embark on a career in country music, which is not only incongruous to her previous work (“Downtown”, “I Know a Place”, “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”, etc.), but also for her geographic origin. To be sure, there have been a number of British performers who have become enamored of American music and done quite well with it. But these artists tend to stick with the roots of the music and not the prevailing commercial trends. On Natural Love: The Scotti Brothers Recordings, a collection of Clark’s early ‘80s recordings, she flits back and forth between thinly produced, saccharine pop balladry and the big-hair-and-too-much-make-up country sound of the time.
Always having possessed an impressive voice, if never truly belonging to the generation to which she was marketed (she was already in her 30s during her pop reign in the 1960s), Clark here gamely attempted a late-career crossover with aplomb. But even the best of voices cannot save weak material and limp arrangements designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Which is unfortunately exactly what this collection represents: a series of insipid pop-country and adult contemporary numbers aimed straight at the charts but falling far short of commercial success (save lead-off track “Natural Love”, which reached #24 on the adult contemporary charts).
Elsewhere, her take on “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” adds nothing to the list of seemingly innumerable, far superior renditions, yet remains pleasant in its own humble way. The same cannot be said for the rather bizarre inclusion of her cover of The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss”. Yet another song that has been done nearly to death—not to mention the fact that, by the time Clark got around to it, the song was well past its expiration date—here proves so irrelevant and lightweight that it threatens to float away entirely on its own inconsequentiality.
Only the big band arrangement of closing track “Darkness” manages to rise above the simpering, insipid pop pap on display. Its muscular arrangement and prominent horns help to make it one of the very few memorable moments on a collection of material best left in the dustbin of history. Let us remember Ms. Clark for who she was, not what she later became—a concept she seems to have embraced given the number of times “Downtown” has been re-recorded and re-released as a single over the last 40 years. Natural Love is for extremely die-hard Petula Clark fans only. All others should stick with her ‘60s peak.