This album could send Phil Spector into a diabetic coma. That must have been the idea when Steven Van Zandt went to work producing Darlene Love’s big comeback album. Or, more accurately, since her best work lies in singles scattered across multiple decades and multiple names, Darlene Love’s big album.
That’s what it is, above all else. It’s just big. Introducing Darlene Love is an hour of every traditional pop pyrotechnic device exploding in a thunderstorm of sugar. Though she’s 74 and her profile is just now recovering from long-term neglect by music history, this never sounds like a comeback album.
It defies every comeback album narrative. It’s not the “let’s have you sit in a lonely room with a dusty piano and talk about death” album (Johnny Cash). It’s not the “let’s throw you under a blanket of arch-modernity” album (Gil Scott-Heron). It’s not even the “let’s pretend you’re a proto-punk teenager” album (Wanda Jackson). It’s just a bulldozer of an old school pop album, an unrelenting cavalry charge that has no use whatsoever for dynamics or subtlety. Every track on it is engaged principally in picking a fight with every pop song that has ever been called “soaring.”
This, of course, is a holy cause, since Darlene Love got railroaded on receiving any name recognition for her work with Phil Spector. Though she did eventually get consolation prizes. In her annual Christmas appearance on Letterman, she asserted her ownership of the best “we’re decorating a tree, not moping around getting drunk and nostalgic” holiday pop tune on the planet, performing it with reliably superhuman charisma. And with 1992’s “All Alone On Christmas,” recorded for the Home Alone 2 soundtrack, she convincingly argued that Bruce Springsteen should have immediately been fired from the E Street Band and replaced by her.
But that’s just not good enough, because it’s 23 years later and Bruce Springsteen still hasn’t been fired. I mean, okay, he can duet with her on “Born to Run” at the Jersey shows, play some rhythm guitar, whatever, he’s still a key member of the E Street Band organization. Just put it to a vote, Steve. Everybody’s on your side. Make it official. Fire him. Do what you have to do. Re-record all of Springsteen’s good songs, you know which ones they are, with Darlene Love’s vocals, plan it in secret, lay the groundwork with promoters, then drop the bomb on him. Get it together. Haven’t you read Play It as It Lays? History got it all wrong. Iago’s not evil.
While we wait for Steve’s final decision here, and I’ve laid out exactly how to do it so he has no excuse, this album will have to do. It sounds for all the world like a Bruce Springsteen album fronted by Darlene Love. It is an exercise in pure Wall-of-Sound-Plus-Electric-Guitars maximalism. Steve clearly has no idea that there are any decibels lower than 98.
This would be more of a problem if you were dealing with any other legacy artist of this age, but Darlene Love isn’t merely, you know the drill, “game for the proceedings” or “at home in the sonic landscape.” She still belts with all of her gospel chops and no sign of age or fatigue. She runs this album with no self-consciousness. She is constantly asserting her primacy, because she knows what the stakes are.
Too bad the album’s not as good as she is. It wears its gaudiness and bombast on its sleeve, and that’s fine, because her charisma is so vast, but to be this gaudy you need some dynamics. All of these songs sound like they should be sung for a minimum of a 75% capacity stadium. But you wish some of them didn’t. You need some quieter songs for dramatic emphasis, especially when an album is an hour long. It makes you want a first and second act instead of an hour of climax. Every song on here wants to be the single, or the album cut that actually kicks more ass than the single, man. That only flies at 30 minutes.
And it’s only designed to be heard loud. I’m not sure it even exists on earbuds. Try listening to it quiet. You can’t. You can almost hear Steve stomping around and telling you turn up your speakers, and where the hell’s your subwoofer, kid, how you gonna hear that rolling low end? What are you doing listening to it on headphones, kid? You’re supposed to play it with like 20 people around and pretend you’re in a Scorsese movie.
The songs, meanwhile, have exactly one emotional wavelength: two desperate lovers about to spin each other around on top of a skyscraper or make out in front of an erupting volcano. The stakes are all magical. But an hour of magical high stakes romance is exhausting. The songs are all fine individually, but as a collective it’s too much. It blurs together.
So it’s almost impossible to pick out a highlight track. But “Forbidden Nights,” written by Elvis Costello, wins by default because the video pulls double duty as a Late Show with David Letterman alumni reunion.
Just don’t listen to it in one sitting, try not to picture Steve’s facial expressions when he was in the studio, and you’ll be okay. The whole album is such giddy, decadent Phil Spector fanfiction that it’s impossible to dislike. You can’t even fault it when the horns devolve into “sports show bumper music” territory, because what other album in 2015 could even make that mistake? That’s hilarious. And at least it’s earnest. Steve Van Zandt thinks the highest compliment he can pay this woman is to lobby for her to play at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show. He’s just doing what he knows how to do.
So what if it’s Wall of Sound by way of ESPN? The intentions are virtuous, and Darlene Love deserves the opportunity to prove what she can do, an opportunity she exploits to its fullest potential. She’s heroic enough to ride in front of arrangements so bombastic and overstuffed they make Springsteen’s “Death to My Hometown” sound restrained. But that being said, I have to take back what I said earlier. This wouldn’t put Phil Spector in a diabetic coma. Introducing Darlene Love, played at its intended volume, would kill Phil Spector.