Barbra Streisand is angry, and she wants you to know it. Walls (★★★) is her first album of original work since 2005. It is, for the most part, classic Streisand, heavy on ballads with mostly minimal orchestration to get in the way of those unmistakable vocals, but this time with an edge that reflects the frustration that she and many others have felt since November 2016.
If the album’s title left any ambiguity around the target of her anger, the opener “What’s On My Mind” makes it apparent enough. Streisand’s main preoccupation is with truth in a world that she sees as having largely abandoned it. Her frustration and sense of powerlessness are both palpable, although she does offer up a bit of hope on “The Rain Will Fall,” a triumphant ballad that is a contender for best song on the album, assuming its heavy-handed pun can be forgiven. Subtlety has never been high on the list of reasons to love Streisand, but many of the lyrics, particularly the ones to “Don’t Lie to Me,” are a little much, even for her.
The album’s major downfall is not so much that its political message is blatant and incessant, but that it is ultimately a shallow one. It can be boiled down to, “the president is a liar and we are no longer civil to one another.” Two years into a Trump presidency, when the executive branch’s slippery relationship with the facts has become a daily, numbing reality, it is a message that rings hollow at best and almost offensively tone-deaf at worst. Her sincerity is a small saving grace, but even her anger rarely amounts to more than simply being scandalized at the constant dishonesty.
Aside from the heavy-handed messaging, Walls is a welcome collection of new Streisand tracks. “The Rain Will Fall” and “Love’s Never Wrong” are fantastic songs that are well worth the price of admission. Streisand herself is known to be outspoken, passionate and politically active, and her iconic voice could have been an effective vehicle for a message of resistance or a vision of the future. Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity. The themes she returns to over and over again on Walls are so blunt and myopic that it is difficult to imagine the album providing much inspiration to anyone.
WHEN ELVIS COSTELLO SWORE OFF recording in 2010, he sounded so convincing that it was hard to imagine him ever returning. Since then, however, he has come out with two albums, the latest of which marks yet another evolution in his style. The songs on Look Now (★★★★) have a feeling about them that is part no-nonsense piano pop, part sultry jazz bar, a musical theme that lends itself well to the narrative style of his lyrics.
Look Now revisits many aspects of Costello’s career, but calling it a return to form would be misleading. Coming from someone who has worn so many hats and whose work has drawn on so many different influences, one would have to ask, which form is he returning to, exactly? Costello himself has mentioned wanting to recapture some of the feeling of 1982’s Imperial Bedroom and 1998’s Painted from Memory. The musical and thematic resemblances to those two albums are instantly recognizable, probably owing a lot to Burt Bacharach’s co-writing credit on “Don’t Look Now,” “Photographs Can Lie,” and “He’s Given Me Things.” The album is also notable for reuniting Costello with his backing band, The Imposters, as well as featuring “Burnt Sugar is so Bitter,” a collaboration with Carole King 20 years in the making.
As its title suggests, Look Now insists it is grounded in the present. While the album does have a sense of immediacy about it, Costello cannot help hearkening back to his past career. If one had to nail down which form he is returning to here, it would be Costello the storyteller. He fills this album with small yet arresting flourishes, like the woman in “Stripping Paper” who tears down a sheet of wallpaper to find where she and her cheating husband marked their daughter’s height in happier times. Always a gifted lyricist, he is at his strongest form yet on Look Now, telling the stories of living, breathing characters with sympathy and nuance.