Susan Boyle doesn’t get the respect she deserves, partly because the field she chose to work in still sees her as a manufactured Simon Cowell product. In Pop music, there isn’t really much of a stigma anymore to have gotten your start in Reality TV, because so many widely respected stars like Kelly Clarkson, Girls Aloud and Miranda Lambert have come out of that system, but among fans of Showtunes and Traditional Pop, there’s still a widespread mindset that anything that came out of a Reality TV talent show must be lowbrow trash.
The most common argument put forward by these people is that her voice isn’t technically perfect. This is actually true, but indicting her for it is missing one of the key points about interpretive singing. In this genre, technical skill doesn’t matter as much as putting your own distinctive stamp on a song…after all, Pat Boone was a far better technical vocalist than Billie Holliday, but which one would you rather listen to?
And Boyle’s persona has always been built around the fact that she’s a phenomenally talented natural voice with little technical training. And given that she combines that voice and persona with a staggering gift for emoting and ‘acting’ the songs she sings, there seems little reason to complain when many far less gifted singers with a strong acting range are considered performing giants in musical theater. Think of her as the opposite of Michael Buble: technically unpolished but with a distinct style and strong emotional presence, while he has a near-flawless voice but uses it to peddle a tired shtick that was old when Harry Connick, Jr. did it.
Most of the complaints about her center around her famous performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”, since it’s all her detractors have generally heard of her work, but while the studio version of that song is, at least in theory, the centerpiece of this album, it is by no means the best thing on it. The real highlights include a strange, haunting, eerily intense performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” that showcases Boyle’s real range as a performer; a heartbreaking rendition of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”, reconceived here as a tear-stained ballad; and quietly intense, deeply angry versions of the classic standard “Cry Me a River” and Madonna’s “You’ll See”.
She also offers a characterful performance in what would become her other signature song, the deeply personal “Who I Was Born To Be”, and gives an intensely soulful performance of the Spiritual-like “Up the Mountain”. The hymns, including “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”, are mostly treated as pure vocal showcases, but they serve nicely for that purpose, and she manages to bring the hushed feel that is so essential to the album-closing “Silent Night”.
Even on the conventional Easy Listening anthem “Proud”, taken from the British Glee equivalent Britannia High, Boyle manages to find something genuine and touching. The only song on the album that manages to defeat her is the maudlin Country ballad “The End of the World”, and to be fair, that glaze-eyed, unintentionally creepy horror kind of resists a decent performance from anybody.
This album is a testament to Boyle’s genuine credibility as an interpreter of classic songs, and if all you’re familiar with is her iconic rendition of the title track, you really should hear the rest of the album to experience all the other shades and nuances of Susan Boyle as a performer.