On first hearing ‘Blue’, Joni Mitchell’s 1971 break-up masterpiece, Kris Kristofferson was said to have remarked of the albums staggering melancholic intimacy, “Joni! Keep something of yourself!”. On listening to ‘Life. Love. Flesh. Blood’ someone might cry the same to Imelda May.
The fifth release by the Irish singer-songwriter paints a woman at a crossroads. The album follows, and largely dwells upon, her separation from husband and guitarist Darrel Higham. And it’s impossible to separate from context. Ditching her usual rambunctious rock ‘n’ roll for the bittersweets of jazz and soft soul, May focuses on the theme of lost love alongside deeper musings on childhood, religion and mortality. It’s not just a break-up record; it’s a full-blown reflection on a life. With all the tragic beauty of a fallen star.
Songs like ‘Call Me’ and ‘Black Tears’ are the album’s base. Tender jazz-guitar ballads (the latter featuring Jeff Beck on swooning lead) built for slow-dances by moonlight. The influence of producer T-Bone Burnett is clear. He captures May’s balancing act of fragile and thunderous perfectly, and gives it all a nightclub-blues twist. Still favouring the vintage, May borrows heavily from Sinatra’s ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ for the album’s moodier dabbles. ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘How Bad Can A Good Girl Be’ are shifty noir sizzlers that see May go full Billie Holiday. Like an angel with broken wings, singing torch songs at Heartbreak Hotel.
However, though May’s sombre reflection seeps into the album’s every crevice, there’s a glimmer of her former sass. Dimmed but not defeated. ‘Bad Habit’ is the album’s springiest track, and closest to her former fieriness, whilst the spirited ‘Human’ echoes Meg from Disney’s Hercules of all things, with its talk of Gods and pedestals and its own doo-wooping choir.
But the album mixes old and new together in glorious unison for the crown jewel that is ‘When It’s My Time’, a shoot-for-the-sky gospel tune featuring virtuosic ivory-tinkler Jools Holland on keys. Oddly, it is with this coded prayer on love, death and religion, that May raises the roof. She rides high above the soulful backing, blending pillow-talk whispers and soul-stirring cries to give the best vocal performance in an album stacked with crackers.
Only time will tell whether this album heralds a permanent gear shift, or if it’s just a delicate stopover for the queen of rockabilly. But there’s no denying that ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’ contains some of May’s most mature and honest material. It’s retro and jazzy enough to please her existing fans, but its softness opens the door to a whole new cadre of listeners. This could well be the album that kicks May up a notch.
But despite all that, you can’t help but feel like you’re intruding when listening to the album. Because, above all, it feels like it’s meant for just one man. Darrel Higham. The rest of us are just eavesdroppers, peaking at a hidden treasure.