By: Thom Jurek
Date: June 2023
In 2000, singer Ute Lemper released Punishing Kiss, a collection written for her by contemporary songsmiths including Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Neil Hannon, Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, and Scott Walker. Deeply inspired by the album and its tour, she felt she could begin composing her own tunes. In (future husband) Todd Turkisher’s New York recording studio, she wrote on paper, composed music on a piano, and committed her ideas to analog tape. Though some originals appeared on 2002’s But One Day…, the balance were relegated to her in-laws’ basement. She composed more material for 2008’s Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, but none of those early songs were included.
The source tapes were rediscovered on a shelf in 2021 alongside a backup cassette copy; Turkisherand Lemper restored and digitized them. She realized that some selections were simply too dated to rework, while others held enough of a contemporary spark for reinvention. The couple’s production tweaks included juxtaposing bits of her youthful voice with lyrics re-sung by the artist atop modern grooves. Seized by an impulse to write, she again began scratching on paper, then composing at the piano. Time Traveler’s title track was the first song to emerge in what is ultimately a musical encounter between a mature artist and her younger self.
The title track is a breezy exercise in contemporary jazz framed by casually strummed wah-wah electric guitars, drum kit, keyboards, and piano. Lemper’s phrasing is clean and soft, in an unhurried delivery content to dwell in the spaces between. Meanwhile, she reveals to herself that it’s not only the world that’s changing around us, as time alters us too. The waltz tempo buoying “In My Flame” is elegant, graceful, and deliberately imprecise rhythmically. The lyric juxtaposes present and future with a bittersweet instructive vision of the past. “Moving On” melds pop, blues, and jazz in a pianistic paean to the moment. The spectral, mysterious, luxuriant melody in “Magical Stone” recalls Kate Bush‘s harmonic formalism, though Lemper’s sung phrasing is resonant with her own signature vocal phrasing and playing style. Sung in French, “Envie d’Amour” weds sheeny, multi-textured electro-acoustic pop to inspired nouveau chanson. “Cry in the Dark” evolves from minimal, Rhodes- and guitar-driven jazz to shimmering, sophisticated, sensual pop. The set closes with “The Gift,” a transcendent ballad illustrated by piano, muted brass, and guitars. The protagonist’s journey through the confusion of her inner and outer opacity eventually introduces an open space in her heart where light appears, first in small shards. As confusion lessens, so does doubt, and possibility whispers itself into being. The future, informed by all of these stages, looms hopeful and attainable.
Time Traveler is a consciously constructed song cycle that not only reveals a dialogue between the contemporary artist and her younger self but reveals to the listener the wonder, empathy, and tenderness experienced by both parties.
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