Few of us can, as the locution goes, "relate to" German mezzo-soprano Ute Lemper. Assuming you're not some highbrow international singer/dancer/model/actress who can hit up admiring acquaintances like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave for new material, you may rightly regard Lemper as a glamorous weirdo, a hyperactive superachiever. The 36-year-old chanteuse began her career starring in such popular stage musicals as Cats, Cabaret, and Chicago. Next she took to the concert halls, recording for classical label Decca and earning fame as the leading interpreter of Kurt Weill's theater songs. Equally welcome on Broadway and at La Scala, Lemper has spent the last decade proving that she can sing pretty much whatever the hell she likes and claim it as her own, whether it's avant-garde composer Michael Nyman's severe chamber-orchestra arrangements of Paul Celan poems, classic chansons made famous by Piaf and Dietrich, or obscure Kabarett songs dating from the Weimar Republic. If the word diva hadn't been tainted by its recent, regrettable association with VH1 specials, Lemper would be at the front of the pack -- in the company of Callas and Piaf, not Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.
Punishing Kiss, Lemper's newest and most adventurous CD, is just this side of ridiculous, teetering on the crumbling precipice that separates the sublime and the pretentious, the masterpiece and the travesty. Outrageously ambitious, the album aims to present contemporary pop as cabaret and cabaret as contemporary pop -- or more precisely, to locate the critical juncture where the two styles converge, mutating into something new but somehow recognizable. Lemper might easily have failed -- and failed hugely, hilariously -- but instead she's conceived an exquisite bastard, one part sick joke, one part delirious epiphany. Although purists might insist that cabaret is a moribund form inseparable from its historical context (specifically 1920s and '30s Berlin), for Lemper, cabaret is timeless, more feel than formula, more gesture than genre. As proof, she offers a collection of new songs that celebrate cabaret as concept, its festering sexiness, its high-camp appraisal of an exhausted, amoral culture overrun by perverts and pimps, misfits and murderers, unfaithful spouses and desperate debauchees.
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The material ranges from Weill's delectably sordid "Tango Ballad" to the Sturm und Drang of British avant-pop band the Divine Comedy's glam art songs; from Philip Glass' "Streets of Berlin," a gritty, glittery examination of urban ennui studded with Bowie-esque production flourishes, to Cave's "Little Water Song," a baleful, impossibly beautiful murder ballad sung from the perspective of a woman being drowned by her lover. Rounding off the project are an experimental song cycle from reclusive English oddball Scott Walker and several tracks by Costello and Waits. "Punishing Kiss," the best of three Costello numbers, shifts abruptly from dark chamber-orchestra mood piece to giddy circus romp as the jaded housewife-narrator channel-surfs in a drunken fog. Elsewhere on the record, a melancholy accordion mates with a lugubrious violin, electric guitars slash through swaths of synths, and brooding piano arpeggios melt into programmed drum loops. The perfect counterpart to these corrosively elegant arrangements, Lemper's theatrical, sometimes deliberately artificial voice is at once caustic and gentle, enraged and ecstatic, ironic and impassioned. Few singers could deliver a line like "And I glow with the greatness of my hate for you" without eliciting a giggle or two; Lemper interprets Cave's sometimes turgid lyrics with such icy authority that you wonder why anyone, including Cave himself, would ever bother to sing his material again. Now that's a diva.