December 2007 - January 2008

Essays

Confession & hits (Hits & confession)

By Robert Forster
Confession & hits (Hits & confession)
Delta Goodrem’s ‘Delta’

The first three album titles of Delta Goodrem’s career provide a narrative of where she has come from and where she is now. Innocent Eyes to Mistaken Identity to Delta: the arc from birth to trial to arrival. It’s a script she has written herself as she has progressed through a teenage pop career, a stint on Neighbours, success, scandal, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the split with her mother as manager, and a schedule that would have sunk any motivational speaker. Delta is her relaunch, a highly planned strategic operation that comes after she has got her life in order. And it’s a public life, one led before the cameras and columns of a publicity-mad world. So we know she has a new man in her life, she lives in the UK with him and his two children, and the past years have been the first break in her career. Delta will tell us all of this, while at the same time attempting to make her an international superstar.

Delta Goodrem is a showbiz kid. She did her first television commercial at age seven; dancing, singing and piano lessons started soon after; and she had an artist-development contract with Sony at 15. At 19 came Innocent Eyes (2003). It’s a good pop album, and just as importantly a strong showcase of her singing, songwriting and piano-playing talents. Mistaken Identity (2004) came too quickly. It’s a much darker affair, presenting the muddle of a young life struck by stardom and strife. Track two is called ‘The Analyst’. Track three, the album’s title song, has the chorus, “The girl I used to be has a terrible case of mistaken identity / And yesterday’s girl is not what you see.” Which was true, but not what the record company wanted to hear. It sold well under half as much as her debut album, its chances further hobbled by a series of flat songs from Robbie Williams’s songwriting partner, Guy Chambers.

Finding the right people to work with Goodrem has been a problem. There are the false starts to her recording career, the spread of producers on her first two albums, and the failed Guy Chambers experiment. It comes down to the strange package Delta Goodrem actually is. She is good-looking, but not in a pocket-sized, push-up bra kind of way. She can sing, but it’s a powerful, hit-them-in-the-back-row voice. And she is a musician. So she’s an oddity in the teenage-girl pop landscape. There is something old-fashioned and square about her, too, that must have the marketing people scratching their heads. What to do with her? Sexy? Windswept? Diva? Dancefloor? Delta’s solution is to up the stakes on everything. If she is to crack the world market, presentation and sound have to be shiny and focused, with no identity crisis. Goodrem is ready, even if it means the thing that gets lost in this operation is the manifestation of all her particular talents.

A new beginning must be heralded. So the album starts with wafting synths and strings, lots of polished air and her vocal sounding like it has never sounded before, as if delivered from the heavens on wings. The opening line is a give-away, as well. Where before we had the gauche and obvious “A new beginning, a new chapter of my life,” from Mistaken Identity’s first track, we now have Goodrem, when she does finally arrive, enigmatically muttering, “Have you ever stared into the rain?” This is better. She has learnt metaphor, and overall the lyrics are more streamlined and considered, as if happiness and a few passing years have given her the power to say less and say it better. Not that the album is not totally self-obsessed and sprinkled with self-help one-liners. The first four songs throw up “I believe in miracles,” “I was put here for a reason,” “I don’t crave what I have not” and, most awkwardly of all, “I’ve been a soundboard tryin’ to be neutral.” But there is still far less of the guileless revelation of her previous records.

The principal revolution is in her sound. There is nothing on Delta that really has the feel of anyone playing in a room. This is state-of-the-art studio-crafted pop, built on beds of electronic textures, piano, touches of rock guitar and backing vocals so slick and soulless they may as well have been beamed down from Mars. Not that this is bad. It just marks it off from the sound of her other records which, although produced for the pop market, had a surprisingly large amount of real instrumentation. The producer list on Delta tells the story. This is the A-league: the guys that make Madonna, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera and Sugababes records. Their instrument is the studio. Their aim is to top the pop charts in as many countries as possible, or in as many as carry MTV. Their sound is ultra-glossy and hook-heavy, and for Goodrem to have a shot at major stardom she had to take them on. But they come at a price.

Producers have always ruled the pop world, but there used to be just one of them on each record. Now there are five. There also used to be only one or two people writing each song; now there are four or five of them, too. The process began in the late ‘80s, when record companies realised that if they farmed out the production duties for a hit artist’s record to as many producers as possible, each would try harder to make his or her track the lead single. So the company potentially had 12 hits on each album. Delta and almost all other pop-chart albums bear the consequences of this approach. Flow, experimentation and fun are gone. Desperation and an assault-like forcefulness have taken over, making the contemporary pop album an exhausting listening experience.

The number of songwriters grew when producers saw the money to be made in publishing and started writing songs themselves or demanding songwriting credits. The artists started to write their own lyrics both for artistic expression and because they saw the royalty cheques going to lyricists. And then there were the freelance songwriters. And this is how names started to bunch up at the end of song titles. On Delta, Goodrem’s name is down on co-writing credits with three or more songwriters on ten of the album’s 12 songs. Yet on Innocent Eyes she had two solo songwriting credits, and that album’s smash single, ‘Born to Try’ - still the best thing she has ever done - she co-wrote with just one other person. A ‘rejected’ Goodrem-penned song for Delta, ‘Writing Eyes on Me’, has just been picked up and recorded by Celine Dion; given some of the tosh on this album, I wonder how bad it must be.

Despite these pressures of production and commerce, Delta does have a structure and a unity of purpose. The first four songs focus on her current situation and have a typically this-is-me-Delta feel to them. They are power-charged by the production, but each comes from a familiar place in the Goodrem style: the piano-tinkled intro winding its way to a knockout chorus. Song five is where the album changes, and the next five tracks seem to have been chosen to allow her to roam over genres for the first time in her career. There’s a sense of testing the waters here, of seeing what else she is good at,  while also providing the chance that something might bite in a different market. The best of them is ‘You Will Only Break My Heart’, which springs from the album with great joy. It’s in the Kylie Minogue style, with an upbeat funky feel, and Goodrem eats it up. She drawls babeee like young female pop stars do, and it would make a challenging and potentially career-changing single.

Also in this group of five are the album’s two outright stinkers, and both she had no hand in writing. ‘The Guardian’ (no, it’s not about the English newspaper) is a power ballad, and like most power ballads its masochistic take on love and its schlock music make it utterly disheartening - which, perversely enough, is the opposite emotional response to the one the writers think they elicit. ‘Woman’ is just plain ridiculous. I have problems with men that write songs called ‘Woman’, especially ones with such pleadingly cynical choruses as, “I’m a woman / A woman with a heart / And I need to be loved / ‘Cause being just your woman is not enough.” Goodrem tries her hardest, and songs such as these do suit her rallying vocal style, but the material has to be much better. She gets that again, thankfully, on the album’s run-out. ‘Brave Face’, with its wonderful opening line - “Put your brave face on / The one you wore when you broke my heart” - returns to the biographical approach of the opening songs. ‘One Day’ has a Joy Division guitar line that carries the song. And ‘Angels in the Room’, the big last love song, actually works as a big last love song because it’s melodic, a little restrained and, like all of Goodrem’s best work, truthful.

If there is one thing hampering the Goodrem modus operandi, it is the confines and rules of the musical world she works in. While it’s true that her music is mainly aimed at girls aged between eight and 15 (and the two girls I know in this bracket both bought her first album only), the style of the songs on Delta, with their quiet verses and sledgehammer choruses, nevertheless lends too much predictability to her music and to her. There is very little that is natural to this music, in the same way that there is nothing in Delta’s lyrics that touches on the outside world. Yet you feel she could write organic songs in and around the pop formula that would simultaneously allow her to grow and perhaps take an audience with her. Tellingly, she doesn’t play piano on Delta. Not a note. The script of Delta, and where she is going, doesn’t allow it - and that’s fine. This is the big pop album a 23-year-old with her looks and voice has to make. And there may be more of them. But one day, she’s going to have to break free of these kinds of songs and this kind of production, and drive herself with the piano and the songwriting talent she obviously has. And if her management was really thinking about the future, even with the cynical intent of just making her different from all the Britneys and Christinas and Gwen Stefanis of this world, they’d get her to do it sooner rather than later.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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