Soulsavers is, or was, the nom de guerre for the initially electronica production team Rich Machin and Ian Glover, who have increasingly developed into the providers of a lush neo-gospel soundscape, incorporating element of country, soul, and blues, into which a variety of singers have embedded (usually) rich and evocative vocals. Dave Gahan is, of course, the front man for Depeche Mode, as famous for his medical history as his work in those early adopters of electronica/pop. His tones are perfect for the Soulsavers brand, and he first came aboard in 2012, singing and writing much the material for The Light the Dead See. This prove a bigger draw than earlier material and the collaboration continued, with the next album, Angels and Ghosts, perhaps ominously now under the Dave Gahan and Soulsavers soubriquet. The duo then made an instrumental album, Kubrick, Gahan returning to Depeche Mode duties.
Last year Gahan began to drop hints as to a further collaboration, and that it would be a covers collection: “When I listen to other people’s voices and songs—more importantly the way they sing them and interpret the words—I feel at home. I identify with it. It comforts me more than anything else.” A taster, the Cat Power song “Metal Heart,” dropped a month or so back and all seemed to be auguring well. Now we have Imposter, the full basket of fruits of their labors. And we have a problem.
Sure, Imposter is very well produced, the trademark chapel wall of sound as luscious as ever, Gahan is in good voice. The musicians are exemplary, if sometimes a little surprising: current Pretender guitar for hire James Walbourne is present, and Ed Harcourt provides some piano parts, with other musicians drawn from Spiritualized, Dexy’s and Porno for Pyros(!) The reliably superb backing vocals come from Wendi Rose, T Jae Cole and Janet Ramus, familiar voices across many a record needing that full community choir effect, and last seen on the road on the Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Carnage tour.
So far, so good. So what’s the problem? Well, less reassuringly, there appears to have been a covert shrinkage in the Soulsavers themselves, Glover seeming to have surreptitiously slipped away. But it is really in the choice of songs that does it for me, so confusingly broad in their choice and styles of source. So we get an ungainly mix of songs from artists as different as Elvis, Dylan, and Eartha Kitt. And Charlie Chaplin. Yes, I get these are songs that have been pivotal to Gahan over the years, but some seem a step too far, others a step not far enough.
Imposter‘s opener, “The Dark End of the Street,” ought to have been a doozy, as the James Carr original, let alone the myriad subsequent versions, almost invented the template Soulsavers took up and embellished. Here it ticks all the boxes, with Gahan at the more anguished of his range, but somehow doesn’t cut it, perhaps at just too fast a lick, and paling to most of its forbears. The next cut, Mark Lanegan’s “Strange Religion,” works much better. As it ought to, mind, given the rendition is a near carbon copy of the original, with Lanegan’s then-2004 production prefacing fully the sound of his later work with Soulsavers. (Put it this way: I have now ordered Lanegan’s Bubblegum, the album on which it appears.)
“Lilac Wine” was originally sung by Eartha Kitt; nowadays people associate it with Nina Simone, or perhaps Jeff Buckley. I’m not so lucky; for me, it conjures up Elkie Brooks at her most saccharine, which colors the song adversely and indelibly. Gahan takes the song a higher register than usual, and whilst one cannot fault the delivery, the song itself is such a mass of gloop as to make it impenetrable. Your mileage may vary.
To then go all blues monster, now adopting a ragged echoed growl, for “I Held My Baby Last Night,” well, it just sounds wrong. Love the backing vocals, though. Walbourne sounds as if he enjoyed cutting a rug too. Better news next, however, as “A Man Needs a Maid” responds well to the backing provided, not so dissimilar to the orchestrated original. Gahan’s voice is superb here and it serves as Imposter‘s highlight number one.
Highlight two, as alluded to earlier, is “Metal Heart,” a beautiful version, with the stately piano replaced by picked guitar, the vocals another perfect pitch, the song building slowly, layer upon later. Glorious. And again, so is “Shut Me Down,” perhaps the least known song here, stemming from the work of ex-Birthday Party man Rowland S. Howard. If few have heard the original, perhaps better to keep it that way, as I have, it falling into the same category as the earlier Lanegan song. OK, it is a smoother and more polished rendition, but it was that roughness that gave it that edge in the first place.
“Where My Love Lies Asleep” is a Gene Clark song. The ex-Byrd imbues it with a campfire charm, so it is possibly the first opportunity for some radical reworking. To be fair, the challenge is risen to and embraced, it becoming an even more mournful lament. A word here for the pedal steel work here and throughout, always a background texture rather than any look-at-me country calisthenic; here it’s provided by Tony Foster, who does similar work with Spiritualized.
Which leads me to the wretchedness of “Smile.” The song, written by Charlie Chaplin and later made famous vocally by Nat “King” Cole, is so hackneyed as to need a truly radical revision to give it any chance of being other than a maudlin pipe and slippers show. This is not that radical revision. (Nice double bass from Martyn Lenoble, though.) By the same token, “Desperate Kingdom of Love” by PJ Harvey, a writer you would think would translate well to this format, falls flat and is sadly leaden. Less kitchen-sink than most of the songs, but this is one that needed none at all.
Has “Not Dark Yet” become the current first-choice Dylan cover, given the number of versions accumulating out here? Another cert for the Soulsavers approach, this time it is reined in a little more than hope or expectation might lead you to anticipate. It’s workmanlike and competent, and there are better renditions out there. Which leaves only “Always On My Mind” and some fear as to which way this could go. Would this be more Willie Nelson or Pet Shop Boys? Answer: the former, in mood and pace, if not arrangement. Reminding the wonder of how strongly an emotional song this is, Gahan nails this, sounding genuinely full of remorse.
Against any preconception, this ended Imposter on highlight number four. Which makes this a tally of one in three, four songs OK and four songs, frankly, clunkers. Is there a dearth of new material? I hope not, as the combination of producer and singer is a good one, their earlier work solid and there being enough here to suggest the powder isn’t spent. Shall we hope so?
01. The Dark End Of The Street – James Carr cover
02. Strange Religion – Mark Lanegan cover
03. Lilac Wine – Eartha Kitt cover
04. I Held My Baby Last Night – Elmore James cover
05. A Man Needs A Maid – Neil Young cover
06. Metal Heart – Cat Power cover
07. Shut Me Down – Rowland S. Howard cover
08. Where My Love Lies Asleep – Gene Clark cover
09. Smile – Nat “King” Cole cover
10. The Desperate Kingdom Of Love – PJ Harvey cover
11. Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan cover
12. Always On My Mind – Gwen McCrae cover