Where Love’s Unwilled, Unleashed, Unbound: Madeleine Peyroux’s Half the Perfect World

 

Madeleine Peyroux’s Half the Perfect World is a good album and the collection’s first song “I’m All Right,” written by Peyroux with her producer Larry Klein and musician Walter Becker, is a funny-sad take on a love affair, and may be as worthy of classic status as any new song can be.

 

By Daniel Garrett

Madeleine Peyroux
Half the Perfect World
Producer: Larry Klein
Rounder, 2006

He made me laugh, he made me cry
He smoked his stogies in bed,
But I’m all right—I’m all right.
I’ve been lonely before.
I asked the boy for a few kind words.
He gave me a novel instead
I’m all right.
I’ve been lonely before.

Madeleine Peyroux’s Half the Perfect World is a good album and the collection’s first song “I’m All Right,” written by Peyroux with her producer Larry Klein and musician Walter Becker, is a funny-sad take on a love affair, and may be as worthy of classic status as any new song can be. He got drunk, he fell down, he threw a few of my things around, but I’m all right. I’m all right. I’ve been lonely before. “I’m All Right” is followed by “The Summer Wind,” a song written by Johnny Mercer with Henry Mayer and Hans Bradtke, and recorded by Frank Sinatra, a song that Madeleine Peyroux somehow—with her unique voice and phrasing—makes her own. “You know how nights like this begin, the kind of knot your heart gets in. Any way you turn is going to hurt,” declares Madeleine Peyroux in “Blue Alert.” Peyroux sings and plays guitar on “Blue Alert,” a mood piece written by Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas, and on “Blue Alert” is joined by Sam Yahel on piano, David Piltch on bass, Larry Goldings on celeste, and Jay Bellerose on drums: “There’s perfume burning in the air, bits of beauty everywhere, shrapnel flying—soldier hit the dirt. Blue Alert,” she sings, and the song could be a very modern interpretation of the blues. “I’m going to where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain, I’m going to where the weather suits my clothes,” sings Peyroux in a song of isolation in a crowd, of independence, “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Fred Neil, once used for the film Midnight Cowboy, and memorably, a song in which Peyroux does not express emotion as much as suggest attitudes and sketch scenes—impressions and relationships. (An aside: For years I heard the phrase “pouring rain” as “foreign rain,” not only in “Everybody’s Talkin’” but in other songs too. “Everybody’s Talkin’,” made famous by Harry Nilsson, has been recorded by the Beautiful South, Jimmy Buffet, Neil Diamond, and Emmylou Harris, a diversity of artists whose interest in the song might be evidence that it is now a standard.) In Joni Mitchell’s “River,” for which Peyroux performs a duet with K.D. Lang, the two women sound as if they are comparing notes on love—it is a duet that is very effective—and Lang’s voice is large, clear, and full of healthy melancholy, whereas Peyroux sounds genuinely wanting and sad; possibly, Lang’s presence inspires Peyroux to dig deeper into the lyrics. The song “A Little Bit,” which Peyroux co-wrote with Larry Klein and another collaborator, Jesse Harris, has lyrics that express a wry humility as the singer seeks a relationship. Peyroux assumes a direct, practical approach, supported by an uptempo country blues beat. “To good things I’m moving ahead, I’m tired of dying, I’m living instead” Madeleine Peyroux sings in “Once In A While,” another song Peyroux co-wrote, a song about getting into the flow of life, remembering a lost love but moving beyond it, a song that features violins, viola, cello, and strings. In the song Peyroux’s narrator admits, “I don’t know what love is. I’m selfish and lazy, and when I get scared I can act like I’m crazy. But when I think of your kisses, I’m still gonna smile. I’m still gonna miss you once in a while.” The Tom Waits song “(Looking for) the Heart of Saturday Night” is a song in which Peyroux’s voice finds words that evoke daily life and the mind’s trying to find connections among events and experiences, while the album’s title song, Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas’s “Half the Perfect World,” is a memory piece full of details—“We’d lay us down to give and get, beneath the white mosquito net, and since no counting had begun, we lived a thousand years in one.” It is a small revelation of the intimacy that is possible between two people, when the human body can seem a continent, when a lover’s past can seem as important as all of history. What is described is a life lived “where love’s unwilled, unleashed, unbound, and half the perfect world is found.” (Anjani Thomas, using only her first name, performs “Half the Perfect World” and “Blue Alert” on her own album, Blue Alert, produced by Leonard Cohen, Columbia/Sony, 2006, a recording of passion and poetry: “When I’m alone, you’ll come back to me. It’s happened before—it’s called memory,” Anjani sings in Blue Alert’s “Innermost Door.”) Having no second language I do not know the theme of Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Javanaise,” which Peyroux performs and which features violins, viola, cello, and a string quartet, and allows Peyroux a chance to sing in French. (Peyroux, whose recordings include Dreamland and Careless Love, spent time in Paris as a street musician.) Madeleine Peyroux’s voice has a hopeful lilt in “California Rain.” Madeleine Peyroux’s album Half the Perfect World ends with Peyroux’s interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s song “Smile,” a song of advice to the listener and a performer’s creed. Madeleine Peyroux is a singer influenced by tradition, but she is emerging as ever more unique, and there’s no stronger sign of that than “I’m All Right,” in which she states that sticks and stones will break her bones but tears do not leave any scars so “I’m All Right,” a song that ends with Madeleine Peyroux laughing about the things her lover chose to do in bed—such as play solitaire, blow bubbles, and sing Christmas songs.

Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Ben Harper, Bright Eyes, Devendra Banhart, Cassandra Wilson, K.D. Lang, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. “I first heard Madeleine Peyroux while strolling in a music store: her version of Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ was on the sound system and I found it fascinating—it was like Billie Holiday doing Dylan. When I heard ‘I’m All Right,’ I fell in love with it,” says Garrett. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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