AFTER some 20 years being the girl who described herself so successfully in She’s So Unusual back in the 1980s, Cyndi Lauper has gone through various reinventions over the years, with different rates of success. When a pink-haired, baby-voiced singer who had less style but greater vocal talent than Madonna burst upon the music world and a fledgling MTV scene back then, she offered a bright, colourful fusion of pop, New Wave and post-punk. Compared to those beginnings, this album seems to be a complete about-turn for the singer.
Believe it or not, Lauper is 50 years old this year and it may be apropos for a singer who has always found a tune in the quirkiest of ways to have produced that which is unexpected, a confection of material that grows on you. At Last is an album that delves into her nostalgic memories of growing up in New York’s Queens district, where working class communities came together on the weekends regardless of race and creed.
Each summer, Lauper recalls, music and families spilled out of row houses into back yards. For all the cultural differences, we all had two things in common: a love of music; and the believe that Manhattan was Mecca. The album is more about old standards reinterpreted in her inimitable style than it is about Manhattan, though; these songs have been sung before by artistes as diverse as Santa Esmeralda and Edith Piaf.
This is perhaps Lauper’s most successful attempt to re-establish herself as a serious artiste happy wheels demo in recent times and as a real grown-up At Last is all about adult contemporary music. The arrangements of the songs are minimal, but there are playful moments where a Latin beat insinuates itself in Stay and there are shimmering strings in Unchained Melody. In the forefront of all the songs, though, her own voice is still as compelling and forceful.
Songs like Unchained Melody, At Last and Hymn To Love profile her voice at its most tender, whether the tone is yearning and heartfelt in the former or scorchingly bluesy in At Last. The vocals can be versatile in the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song Walk On By, she turns Dionne Warwick’s version inside out as she takes on a darker tone, all shadows and melancholy compared to Warwick’s comparatively sunnier original.
Tracks like My Baby Just Cares for Me and On the Sunny Side of the Street profile Lauper at her quirkiest, and the element of fun injected into the tracks is strongly evident. The only song obviously off the mark is La Vie En Rose, where her vocals are too strong and harsh and mars the soft-edged implications of this classic torch song.
At Last is the latest chronicle of how much Lauper has matured and moved on into new territory, and this transition to a new image is the smoothest to date for the album is intimate, resonant in its personality and difficult to resist, quirks and all.