Melissa Etheridge, rock’s stalkerish power diva, walks a softer side of the ‘Street’
RICH LOPEZ | Contributing Writer
Let’s face it: As iconic as Melissa Etheridge is to both music and the gay community, her songs ring with creepy codependence.
Big hits like “I’m the Only One” and “Come To My Window” are unforgettable, but she also sounds a little like the stalkerish ex who just won’t go away.
But in her 10th album, 4th Street Feeling, she erases those notions with emotional subtlety and strong compositions. Etheridge sounds more confident and in control than ever.
If there is ever an upside to family discord, it’s a collection of strong tunes. Etheridge rises above her recent divorce and mama-drama and channels that into her best CD ever. She has the talent to deliver some emotional impact with driving rock that is heartfelt, but there’s a shift in her voice. Previous Etheridge albums rarely simmer, but she’s mastered that here and the images she paints are far more picturesque.
Feeling plays mostly like a road movie, appropriately starting with “Kansas City.” The song is dreary and grey like a rainy night, but has patience and opens the album on a steady note. That steadiness continues to lay its foundation with the title track. She’s more soulful here, and the depths she reaches indicate her songwriting is improving even this far into her career. When she sings I get the feeling everything I’m doing now, I’m doing wrong, it’s personal, confessional. She’s taken a page from Lucinda Williams by letting the words form their existence as opposed to her belting them out. When they take shape here, it’s stunning.
When she gets some pep in her step, she doesn’t falter. Her lead single “Falling Up” is usual Etheridge territory, but the added tint of country makes it fresh, even if she does sing shake it like a Polaroid. But there’s joy here that echoes on her bluesy “Shout Now.” Her rousing delivery is no surprise, but she does up the ante with smart music layering.
Ironically, what makes Feeling so great are the underlying imperfections. On the hard rocking “Sympathy,” she’s uneven and forced. The words are thrown against the tune as if to see what sticks and it just feels like filler. “Sacred Heart” exudes confidence, but suffers from a similar lack of smoothness. It holds back, it explodes … then repeat. The songs feel more like experimentations than misfires.
She realizes her old codependent tones in “A Disaster,” a key track for the history books. She shuns her old self with say goodbye to the rest of me and call it a disaster / call it a catastrophe. Lyrics paint strong pictures with nuclear fingertips, annihilating stare and parasitical fascination. A little much perhaps, but beautifully effective.
Her gritty “The Shadow of a Black Crow” almost suffers from clichés, but it’s the ideal song that marries her usual spirit with her new maturity. She goes for broke with moody imagery and despite some momentary goofiness, the song itself is epic and a big stop on her road trip.
When the album comes to a close, I expect “Rock and Roll Me” to be this arena-rock finale, but she turns the tables. Instead, it’s a quiet bluesy trip that makes you put your beer down and forget to reach for another drink because you need to hear what she’s saying next. Her adoration for a mysterious woman doesn’t sound desperate, its sounds sexy. There’s whiskey to be had amid a cigarette-drenched dive in the backskirts of some small town gay bar here. That’s where this belongs, but drifting in your ears from headphones is the next best thing. She bookends the album with subdued notes originated from grace and a final stop to her trek.
Etheridge knows her voice, but on 4th Street Feeling, she’s found a new one that’s kinda sexy, kinda rebellious but mature and smart. Fans have probably thought Etheridge has peaked many times in her career, but this may be the highest one of all.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2012.