Album Review: Imelda May – Life. Love. Flesh. Blood

It has been three years since Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May’s last studio release.  Drawing on her personal changes during that time–primarily the end of her eighteen year marriage–May has crafted an intimate and revealing work with her upcoming fifth album Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. With a powerhouse assembly of industry talent including the legendary T Bone Burnett at the production helm, contributions from Jeff Beck and Jools Holland, and a core studio backing trio of guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits and Elvis Costello,) drummer Jay Bellerose (Elton John), and bassist Zach Dawes (The Last Shadow Puppets), Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is one of the crispest albums I have heard this year.

Those familiar with her previous work will instantly recognize a departure from her trademark rockabilly sound–but change is not something to fear. May’s powerful and inflective voice can easily transcend genre lines and is consistently amazing. Life. Love. Flesh. Blood allows May to put her range to work within the broad musical and thematic landscape of Americana.

Many of the songs are clearly autobiographical: The emotional fatigue caused by a dying relationship is the catalyst for the minimally-guitar-twanged “Call Me” that stirs stylistic comparison to a melancholy Patsy Cline ballad. May often leaves her heart bare for the world to see, but while you can feel her pain in her words, you never sense weakness. Instead, you witness the raw emotional rebuild of a person putting it all out there and coming out stronger and more self-aware on the other side. This is on full display with “Should Have Been You” which morphs from gentle keys and chimes to anthemic guitar and percussion growl, capped by her fiery vocal performance.  “Tell me who takes care of me? It should have been you,” a lyric that she transforms from a question–to an accusation–to a statement of independence. May has evolved from sharing her personal story about the end of her marriage to becoming a rallying cry in support of women’s issues, a timely subject further  explored by the song’s recent music video.

The album does return to a few of May’s earlier influences; “Black Tears” features the guitar work of longtime collaborator Jeff Beck, who extracts a sorrowful cry from his instrument that brilliantly melds with May’s bluesy approach and creates a slow-dance worthy tearjerker.  Her rockabilly influence surfaces on “Bad Habit,” helping bridge this new album with her prior work.

While some might call this release a reinvention or a new direction, this new venture is an extension of her long-time jazz, blues, and traditional country musical roots.  Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is a shining example of the rich influences that meld on the stage of Americana music.

Purchase Life. Love. Flesh. Blood out April 21st via Verve Records:

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