Nick Bollinger samples a new album of mostly old songs from Bic Runga.
Last time Bic Runga made an album she cast off a lot of preconceptions that had been following her around. 2011’s Belle replaced the introspective singer-songwriter of her early records with a figure that now seemed to have a license to be whimsical, fun, at times even funky.
This time the old and new seem to have met in the middle.
If it’s not as surprising as Belle, it’s perhaps because with that record she so thoroughly rewrote her own brief. Among other things, she had written a number of songs in collaboration with other writers: Lawrence Arabia, Evermore drummer Dann Hume and her partner Kody Neilson. And the process appeared to have been liberating, allowing her to write in genres previously out of bounds.
For this new album, though, she’s hardly written any songs at all. ‘Dream A Dream’ is one of just two originals on the whole record. Which doesn’t mean that Close Your Eyes doesn’t have a lot to tell us about Bic Runga.
She covers ‘Things Behind The Sun’, an extraordinary song from the late Nick Drake, and Bic navigates its lyric so delicately and wisely, she might have written it herself.
Then there’s ‘Wolves’, one of the standout songs on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album from just this year, and Runga sounds as comfortable singing that as she does singing Nick Drake. In fact, the remarkable thing is how easily the two songs – divided by decades, genres and sensibilities - sit together here. In Runga’s hands, Kanye becomes the sensitive singer-songwriter while Nick Drake is revealed to be an overlooked writer of gorgeous pop melodies. It’s Runga, of course, whose intimate feeling for both tunes makes sense of such an odd pairing. And just as convincingly she can throw into the mix a song by the late Arthur Lee of 60s psych-rockers Love, a French pop confection from Francoise Hardy or a funk track by The Meters.
Another cover – if you can call it that – is of ‘Life Will Get Better Some Day’ by The Mint Chicks, the former band of Runga’s partner and musical collaborator Kody Neilson. Then there’s a hushed and intimate reading of Ewan McColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ and a sensitive take on Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart.’ But it’s one of only two Runga originals that gives the album its title, Close Your Eyes, and the song is as lovely and lively a piece of pop as Bic Runga has made.
It’s tempting to hear Close Your Eyes as a stopgap; something to fill the space when new songs are thin on the ground. Yet whether singing her own songs or reinterpreting those of her peers and heroes, Bic Runga is unfailingly musical, deeply sensitive to lyric, melody and groove. Close Your Eyes proves that, while remaining the lightest, least earnest of her albums.
Songs featured: Things Behind The Sun, Wolves, Dream A Dream, Close Your Eyes.
Close Your Eyes is available on Sony.