Madeleine Peyroux took significantly less time than the eight years between her debut and its follow-up to release her third album, Half the Perfect World, which finds a more mature -- or at least less vulnerable -- singer, one who chooses to express herself with nuance rather than overtness. Often, like in the opening "I'm All Right" -- one of four original songs -- this aversion to unconcealed emotion works well, playing off the swelling Hammond, the swinging rhythm of the acoustic guitar (contrasting nicely with the hook of "It's all right, I've been lonely before"), and the simple drums. But at other times, like in "A Little Bit" -- which is bluesy and more upbeat and practically screams for an outburst, a growl, something -- her hesitancy instead almost comes across as a flaw, as a fear of fully expressing herself. On "Blue Alert," where Anjani's voice was full and seductive, rife with curling smoke rings and lipstick-stained wineglasses, Peyroux seems desolate and flat and she simplifies the situation too much, though she does fare much better on the other Anjani/Leonard Cohen piece and title track of the album. Here, she changes its perspective, mixing the characters together and sounding beautifully fragile, yet at the same time strong and certain, as she sings about her love. The same can be said for her version of the Johnny Mercer-penned "The Summer Wind," which uses a cleaner, less dramatic arrangement to convey the feeling that, though she's thinking about past events with some nostalgia, she's also able to accept the outcome and move forward with her life. This kind of resignation hangs heavy throughout the entire album, making every song she covers seem sadder than the original. Joni Mitchell's "River," sung with k.d. lang, is slow and heart-wrenching (lang's voice, especially, brings a sweet melancholy to it), and Peyroux's version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" has a kind of dejected resoluteness that makes you wonder if she can even follow the advice she's singing. This subtlety is two-fold, however. It's so prevalent in the music that it's hard to tell if it's hinting at greater depth or if it's really a protective blanket, an affected timidity to prevent exposure. The delicateness of Half the Perfect World is certainly nice, but Peyroux seems to be using it as a device to hide behind instead of an actual expression of feeling, and so while the album is an overall success, it still leaves questions lingering behind the softly clicking hi-hat, the wandering bass, of when the singer's really going to show herself completely.
AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown