In the opening line of her album When I Look Down That Road, Melissa Manchester basically sums up the latter half of her career: "I've been walking through the smoke of a thousand burned-out dreams, so hard to shake the ashes of the past from my feet." As she knows all too well, there are sad circumstances in which the business of music envelops an artist so tightly that the creativity and passion are sealed away. In the '70s, Manchester blossomed as an important singer/songwriter responsible for such classics as "Midnight Blue," "Whenever I Call You Friend," and "Don't Cry Out Loud." But as her album sales began to decline, the corporate machinery began to take hold of her career and her original songs were left along the wayside to make way for glossy pop songs and sappy ballads written by "hitmakers." As a songwriter, she had all but disappeared. Leaving the recording studio after 1995's over-produced If My Heart Had Wings, Manchester spent almost a decade regrouping and getting in touch with the artist who had been lost for so many years. Reaching back to a time when the songwriting was just as important as the singer, Manchester reconnected with herself and recorded When I Look Down That Road, her first album of original material since 1978's Don't Cry Out Loud. In a welcome return to form, she has stripped away the many layers of bloated production and overwrought balladry that has dogged her work since the '80s to reveal a set of songs that quietly shine and stand brilliantly alongside her early work. In the album's opener, "I'll Know You By Your Heart," Manchester sounds revitalized and passionate against the song's sparse bluesy samba beat. The difference between this one song and her post-'70s output is immediate. Gone, thankfully, are the sweeping synthesizers, belted choruses, and saccharine sentiments, replaced with basic instruments, breezy melodies, and thoughtful lyrics. A mystical character named Pearl is brought to life in the Bonnie Raitt-styled "Angels Dancing," while Gertrude Stein is visited in the Latin-tinged "When Paris Was a Woman." Two beautiful ballads, "Bend" and "When I Look Down That Road," delicately play on the emotions without resorting to plastic sentiment. It has been a long time since she has sounded this vibrant and honest. When I Look Down That Road is a true comeback in every sense of the word and ranks among her best albums. Dormant for too long, Melissa Manchester's singer/songwriter soul has finally returned.
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AllMusic Review by Aaron Latham
feat: Keb' Mo'