At this stage of the game, after Melissa Etheridge's nearly 20 years in the big-time music biz, eight studio albums, chart-topping singles, endless videos, and live and greatest-hits packages (not to mention world tours), her fans are either going to go for it or they're not. The Awakening is likely not the kind of record to win a few thousand new fans over. Yet, given a particular life-changing circumstance or two and word of mouth, it might be. Musically, there isn't anything here that you haven't heard before from Etheridge. If you're a fan that's a great thing, right? (One need only remember that when 1995's Your Little Secret dropped, so did some people who had followed her from the beginning -- she won most of them back, but that slick set was the wrong track to take after the confessional and anthemic Yes I Am.) The Awakening is, according the artist, a concept record. Before you groan, this one is based on life experience, not solely ideas or opinions. For this singer and songwriter, that experience was cancer. The title of this recording is what she learned during her journey down that road and through convalescence, true, but it's also a straightforward look back and forward through a life -- her own. An autobiography can be boring and self-indulgent, especially in pop music, but it can also be an intimate and exciting look at an artist who has been guarded or protected by myth. The Awakening is both. It's interesting that while so many of these songs are peppered with faux-mystical approaches to spirituality, the album is also confessional and looks hard at itself, even if at times it seems cloying, self-indulgent, and preachy. There is plenty of straight talk about mistakes made, such as in "An Unexpected Rain" and in the opening statements about family in "California."
Musically, The Awakening is not different from what Etheridge has done before. This is basically soft, grown-up folky rock; it's that adult contemporary thing she's come to wear so well for the last six years or so. She rocks less and spends more time tweaking the records she does make, but then she's a grown-up now and her fans appear to be aging along with her demographically. There is little hunger here, but there is more gratitude, along with observations about being content in life and love. That said, there is some sly humor in "Threesome," where she talks about not wanting one, but doesn't seem to mind looking at the damage people can do to one another while in them on late-night TV. (The sincerity in the statement of fidelity is obvious; the wicked irony is in the voyeurism.) The preachiness comes in tracks where the guitars get tangled up in the words -- in the message, so to speak -- as in an antiwar song that, while noble in intention, is clunky in its execution. The recurring theme in The Awakening is to see one's life for what it is before it slips away. That's done here to a near fault, but it's through a trial-by-fire set of experiences along with a rosy frame of the here and now. The hassles of the moment aren't expressed; rather, the songwriter is looking at all this from above. If there's not a lot new to write about Etheridge musically, that's fine too; she's found a sound that really works for her and communicates to her fans directly and simply, and gets those commonalities between them across. But it doesn't make for exciting rock music, and it doesn't necessarily speak to anyone who doesn't share these life or cultural experiences, either.