Ute Lemper, the German-born chanteuse and longtime musical citizen of the world, opens her stunning new self-produced album Forever: The Love Poems of Pablo Neruda with a characteristically eclectic and international touch. A French-language version of the poem “La Noche en la Isla” (“Night on the Island,” “La nuit dans l’île” in French) is sprinkled with the sounds of Chilean musician Freddy Torrealba’s charango, a small South American guitar-like instrument, and swathed in gentle strains from the bandoneón, the concertina popular in Argentina and well-known to fans of Ástor Piazzolla’s art-tango compositions.
Lemper sings the rest of the 12 songs, written and arranged by her and Marcelo Nisinman and arranged with help from her band, mostly in Spanish or English. But in any language, it’s her liquid-rainbow tones, her broad and worldly musical sensibility, and the endlessly imaginative reconfigurations of elements of jazz, South American folk sounds, and European art song that make this album so fascinating.
Lemper makes “La Noche en la Isla” into a delicate Jacques Brel-esque mini-drama of a pop chanson. She squeezes desperate passion out of “Tus Manos” (“Your Hands”), and makes a sizzling tango suite of “El Viento en la Isla” (“Wind on the Island”), complete with vocal fireworks. By contrast, “If You Forget Me” (“Si tú me olvidas”) blends innocent-sounding Satie-like chords with languid jazz, all in support of a vocal performance of leaping melodic lines and tonal purity that bring Joni Mitchell to mind.
The bleak and gorgeous “Oda con un Lamento” (“Ode with a Lament”) is probably my favorite Neruda poem, and Lemper’s musical setting of it may be the most divinely melodic track on the album. The poem starts with arguably positive imagery. In Donald D. Walsh’s translation:
Oh girl among the roses, oh crush of doves,
oh fortress of fishes and rosebushes,
your soul is a bottle filled with thirsty salt
and your skin, a bell filled with grapes
It goes downhill from there, until:
…there is a dark room there and a broken candleholder,
some twisted chairs, waiting for winter,
and a dead dove, with a number.
Throughout, Lemper brings an almost uncanny naturalness to the melodies on which she hangs the words of the 20th century’s greatest poet of love. Lines like “That is why you are endless / Gather me up, as if you were all solemnity / All nocturnal like a zone / Until you merge with the lines of time / Advance in sweetness” (Walsh’s translation), flowing as they are, don’t read on the page as though they would easily lend themselves to rhythmic song. But Lemper turns passages like this, in whatever language, into smooth, fully musical creations.
Torrealba intones the words of “Siempre” (“Always”) while Lemper vocally improvises a weaving solo, enveloping her voice to make it sound like a muted trumpet filtered through a Caribbean sunset. Elsewhere her voice breaks, hisses, meows, growls, caresses. The chanteuse’s sometimes oddball English pronunciations only add to the exotic mystery of her source of inspiration. She gives some insight into that inspiration in the video below.
Throughout this disc Ute Lemper and her band honor Neruda’s timeless words as fully as I could have imagined, in music drenched in the same beauty and passion the poet so often celebrated.