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.
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.