Pop fans familiar with Darlene Love’s 55-year career in pop music — or at least her classic records with producer Phil Spector in the early ’60s — will appreciate the humor in the title of her latest album, Introducing Darlene Love. But for others who only discovered the singer through the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, in which she features as the patron saint of overlooked backing vocalists, Love’s new album may in fact be their first time knowingly checking out her music. Either way, Love’s triumphant performances across a variety of musical styles make Introducing Darlene Love a solid primer for both newcomers and long-time admirers who’ve never investigated much past “He’s a Rebel” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
Introducing Darlene Love is being marketed as the singer’s first solo album in 30 years, which isn’t strictly true: she released the gospel LP Unconditional Love in 1998, and the holiday-themed It’s Christmas Of Course in 2007. But Introducing is far and away her highest-profile album to date, featuring production by Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band, and contributions from such notable fans as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, and Paul Shaffer, who worked with Love for her annual Christmas appearances on David Letterman’s show for nearly 30 years. Despite the number of bold-faced names sprinkled through the liner notes, however, the focus remains squarely on Love, whose voice seems somehow to have grown even more resilient and self-assured with age.
From the opening track, a remake of Little Steven’s own “Among the Believers,” it’s clear that Van Zandt is referencing the orchestral melodrama of Spector’s production style. But while the Wall of Sound worked as an all-encompassing roar of adolescent emotion, Van Zandt chooses instead to separate each instrument into discrete units, with each element competing for attention. At worst, this results in the dated cheese of the Joan Jett cover “Little Liar,” or the cluttered bombast of Jimmy Webb’s “Who Under Heaven,” where Van Zandt seems to have traded his Spector influence for a Jim Steinman tribute. Then again, Love, always the most powerful singer in the Spector stable, doesn’t seem well-suited for an American Recordings-style stripped-down reinvention, either; she needs a high-drama arrangement in proportion with her monumental voice. Tellingly, no matter how busy Van Zandt’s productions get, Love remains fully in command.
Not surprisingly, the best tracks on Introducing Darlene Love are those specifically written for Love or tailored to suit her personality. Celebrated songwriting team Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (whose 1963 hit “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” is credited to the Crystals, but features Love’s lead vocals) contribute the sassy “Sweet Freedom,” with a retro flair that plays to Love’s strengths without coming off as a gimmicky throwback. Wall of Sound devotee Bruce Springsteen contributes two new tracks, “Night Closing In” and “Just Another Lonely Mile,” that filter Spector’s production through the Boss’s own Born to Run-era sensibilities, giving Love’s familiar sound an updated, harder-rocking spin. And while Elvis Costello’s “Still Too Soon to Know” wasn’t written for the album, its transformation into a duet reuniting Love with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, a fellow Spector survivor, adds a layer of personal resonance.
Love is among the many voices singing backup on Ike & Tina Turner’s 1966 Spector-produced single “River Deep, Mountain High”; it’s since become a staple in her repertoire, from her days as a member of the Blossoms (with Tom Jones!), to leading a Broadway cast in the ’80s musical Leader of the Pack. Despite this version’s somewhat overcooked arrangement, Love shines through, delivering a full-bodied, gospel-influenced take on the song she’s made her own. Love’s gospel connection, dating back to her childhood singing in church, is made even more explicit on the final last two tracks on Introducing Darlene Love: the Walter Hawkins praise ballad “Marvelous,” and Van Zandt’s own “Jesus is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’),” a celebration of spiritual strength that also could double as Love’s personal motto.
It’s hard deciding whether to lament the fact that Love still needs to introduce herself after over half a century in the music business, or to cheer the fact that she’s finally starting to collect her dues in the form of a well-publicized, star-packed new album. Fortunately, Introducing Darlene Love allows the singer to introduce herself on her own terms, without the need for chasing trends or awkwardly collaborating with unlikely partners. The album may not cast her in a radically new context, but it feels straight from the heart. Love has earned the right to a victory lap; it’s not hard to root for her.
To get your copy of Introducing Darlene Love, head over to Amazon, or stream it now on Spotify.