January 11, 2021. Sunset in the Blue, vocalist Melody Gardot’s new album, works on the listener in a deliberate, almost methodical way, as though it knows it’s playing a long con. So if you find yourself preoccupied or not fully present at first listen— if you haven’t yet had your daily yoga, or engaged your mindfulness app, or done whatever it is one must do in early 2021 to attain clarity and presence, don’t despair. Gardot’s fifth full-length, studio album, and first in five years, will work on you anyway.
It doesn’t hit you until you’ve listened once through and get up to make a snack, or walk the dog, or simply go about any of the things life requires that aren’t active music listening. And then you’ll find that these dozen seemingly benign, bossa-seasoned musical muscle relaxers are insidious in the most delightful way.
The tunes have stayed with you, and you find yourself thankful for the work your subconscious has done on your behalf. It’s about time, you think. That mindfulness app really does work, you surmise.
But I’d blame that intoxicating feeling you’re experiencing on the 2020 Gardot, music that’s quaffable, self-assured and elegant in the simplicity and quality of its ideas and ingredients. For a 2020, this offering presents as a much more distinguished vintage.
And it opens up beautifully. “If You Love Me” is one of those rare songs as good for the in-love as the lovelorn. Imagine a classic Motown slow dance in three, like “A Sunday Kind of Love” or “At Last,” reimagined for a trio of vocals, acoustic guitar (Anthony Wilson) and brushes (Sam Minaie) at a sidewalk Parisian café. Then imagine Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) strings show up to back them with understated gravitas. Now you know you’re dreaming. Except you’re not; it’s all here. Throw in Till Brönner’s trumpet, and you’ve got a tune with deceptive depth; it’s the type of song that’s somehow perfect for a first dance or for leaning into the sadness of a fresh breakup or for contemplating the strangely reassuring quality of heavy rainfall.
Gardot, a multilingual vocalist who’s played piano and guitar capably on past records, is exclusively a vocal artist here, supported with deft sensitivity by sidemen who subsume their considerable individual talents in service of an aesthetic that’s minimalist yet very warm and generous.
Brönner reappears on “Um Beijo,” the first of two that Gardot sings wholly in Portuguese. RPO woodwinds introduce vocals that are seductive and alluring in the manner of Astrud Gilberto’s. Brönner’s part is inconspicuous but indispensable, like vermouth in a good martini.
“Ninguem, Ninguem,” another Gardot original, follows and is the other tune sung from start to finish in Portuguese. This hip-shaker is a welcome change of pace in the middle of an album that’s not monochromatic mood-wise as other critics have suggested—it’s the complex emotional ambivalence that makes so many of the selections affecting—but is, more often than not, gazey and pensive. Paulinho Da Costa (percussion) and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) propel the piece but combo guitars—Wilson on electric and Nando Duarte on acoustic—imbue the piece with a playfully antagonistic chemistry that lodges itself in the brain’s auditory and rhythmic pleasure centers and doesn’t let go.
“From Paris with Love,” the album’s first single, comes next. This one’s received a lot of positive attention for how it was produced; Gardot put together what she’s termed a “digital global orchestra” comprising musicians from around the world whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic. Each musician played and submitted their parts remotely, and Gardot and Decca records donated royalties from sales of the single to a charity supporting healthcare workers.
The song itself is not among my favorites; it’s an agreeable, if formulaic, pop-ballad that calls to mind an orchestra-backed “Me and Mrs. Jones” or any of the handful of original singles Michael Bublé has had such enormous success with.
Better in my mind are “There Where He Lives in Me” and “Love Song,” the third and fourth cuts, respectively. The former resides somewhere in the sweet spot between “Manhã de Carnaval” and “Rio de Janeiro Blue” and is ripe for inclusion on a James Bond soundtrack. At nearly six minutes, one could argue it’s about 90 seconds too long, but that feels petty for a tune that really makes you think hard about a love so strong it takes up residence in your soul. This one might be the gem most likely to be overlooked here.
“Love Song” is one that was originally written for Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and the four-note bursts of cascading riffs from RPO’s strings and the Julian Lage-style twang of Wilson’s electric guitar imbue it with the rusty, dusty, country-like essence of Elton’s “Madman Across the Water.” Though it lacks the energy and fury of “Madman,” it feels possessed of a certain sub-surface darkness that permeates the classic John/Taupin tune.
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin makes an appearance on the next one, “You Won’t Forget Me,” a tune originally written for Carly Simon that’s sultry almost to the point of being haunting. McCaslin and Wilson, again playing a very Lage-like electric guitar, strike that balance of sensuality and just slightly possessed that Gardot affects throughout this one.
If you find yourself attracted to this slightly haunting quality, try the penultimate tune, Gardot’s take on Mancini and Mercer’s “Moon River,” which evokes a feeling similar to that of listening to the version of “Edelweiss” performed by Jeanette Olsson for Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s not deliciously foreboding in the same way, but Gardot does have a similar knack for implying subtext and mystery and amorphous depth that transcends well-worn, facially anodyne lyrics.
Gardot brings that chilling quality to the closer, too, a gorgeous gut-punch of a take on “I Fall in Love Too Easily” that goes slow, hits hard, and gets out quickly. With just Wilson and bassist John Leftwich as accomplices here, Gardot shows the rare quality of being at her best with fewest adornments.