Following the end of her marriage to longtime collaborator and guitarist Darrel Higham in 2015, Irish vocalist Imelda May returns with her fifth studio album, 2017's dark-hued Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Produced by acclaimed roots icon T-Bone Burnett, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood finds May transforming both her sound and image with a suitably haunting and soulful set of songs rife with heartache. Gone are her rockabilly-tinged grooves (and trademark pompadour), replaced with a ballad-heavy, reverb-soaked aesthetic and dark brown Chrissie Hynde-style shag, all of which befits her post-divorce attitude of mourn and move on. If her earlier albums matched '50s rock bounce with '80s new wave attitude, then Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is pure '60s songcraft, a Roy Orbison-esque combination of dusky Americana and vintage British soul. In that sense, it brings to mind similarly inclined albums by artists like Chris Isaak, Richard Hawley, and Elvis Costello. Burnett frames May's throaty, highly resonant croon with a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound punctuated by dreamy guitars (courtesy of Burnett and Marc Ribot), horns (Darrell Leonard), booming low-end bass (via Zach Dawes and Dennis Crouch), sparkling piano (Patrick Warren), B-3 organ (Carl Wheeler), and swirls of über-dramatic Motown-level drums (Jay Bellerose). It's rootsy enough to sound familiar to longtime fans, but also enough of a departure from her heretofore pulpy, leopard-print-and-high-heels rock & roll vibe that some listeners may take a moment to wistfully mark the change. Helping aid the transition and lending their support are several guest performers, including legendary guitar virtuoso and longtime May champion Jeff Beck, who supplies his bluesy reassurance on the languid anthem "Black Tears." Similarly, TV host and former Squeeze pianist Jools Holland shows up on the gospel-infused "When It's My Time." That said, it's May's voice that sticks with you, along with the yearning pathos that she conveys throughout all of Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. Thankfully, rather than a complete downer, the album is peppered with moments of cathartic pop joy, as on the anthemic, Brill Building-worthy "Should've Been You" and the swaggering Pixies-do-Southern-soul number "Leave Me Lonely." Even the rambling acoustic folk closer, "The Girl I Used to Be," in which May draws parallels between her younger self and her daughter, strikes a tone of poignant, bittersweet joy. She sings "Now I'm grown with a child of my own/And I hope to god on high/That these are the days she thinks upon/As the best days of her life." It's a direct comment on her own troubles as a divorced parent, but also one imbued with poetry and a universally relatable theme of renewal. In fact, while most of the songs here do read explicitly like May weighing in on the end of her relationship, they never feel uncomfortably personal, and the overall album plays as a paean to heartache itself. Ultimately, while the album may not hit with the rockabilly wallop that marked the best of her previous work, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is nonetheless a sophisticated and gorgeously rendered album.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar