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Album review: Susan Boyle's 'I Dreamed a Dream'

November 23, 2009 |  3:58 pm
SBOYLE_240 Since she first raised her arms in what now seems like a blessing on the talent show "Britain's Got Talent," revealing herself as the new queen of pop's Island of Misfit Toys, Susan Boyle has come to mean several things to her fans: hope, the triumph of the ordinary, the reality-television embodiment of the Euro-American Dream. As a singer, though, she offers something else: relief.

Boyle's clear but warm tone and stolid phrasing turns everything it touches into a more songful version of New Age music. It's relaxing to listen to those drawn-out syllables, gradually building toward a gentle, wavelike climax. Boyle possesses neither an impulse to swing nor an ounce of the blues; whether she's covering the Monkees, the Rolling Stones or Madonna, Boyle sings like she's in a place of worship, surrounded by white walls and soft light, cooking up some chicken soup for the soul.

Her unearthly calm and gently piercing timbre are her best qualities. It's what makes her version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" so touching. Instead of Mick Jagger's moaning, slightly derisive take on heartache, hers is truly resigned, the sound of someone who really understands and accepts life's limitations.
Maybe that's why the sadder songs on her album are the best. Boyle taps into the melancholy, if not the sexy languor, of Julie London on "Cry Me a River" and gives a beautiful reading of Skeeter Davis' heartbreakingly polite "The End of the World." There's a lonesomeness to these versions that's almost startling, especially compared with the overwrought emotionalism of many younger pop stars.

The same mood doesn't work on "Daydream Believer," which should have more pep, or the more current (and blander) compositions "Who I Was Born to Be" and "Proud."

Boyle is perfectly comfortable singing actual hymns like "Amazing Grace," though her take on them is pretty much on a level with any local church's choir star. She's at her worst when she pushes harder; she doesn't know how to build drama, and her throat seems to constrict as she reaches for bigger notes.

While the material on this collection provides some interest, other possibilities for Boyle's particular gift tantalize. What would David Lynch, whose films (and soundtracks) always find the strange underbelly of the seemingly bland, do with her? Boyle seems up for new challenges. I'd like to see her take a trip up Mulholland Drive.

-- Ann Powers

Susan Boyle
"I Dreamed a Dream"
(Syco Music/Columbia)
Two stars (Out of four)


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