Love And Hate is Joan Osborne’s eighth studio album and is something of a concept piece. In the press release Joan is quoted, revealing, “The image I keep coming back to is that of a beam of white light: we think it’s one thing, but when you shine it through a prism, you see that it’s made up of many different colours, different frequencies.” Using this as an analogy for the complexities of love, she reasons it doesn’t come in the neat package that most pop songs would have us believe and can be about, “Faith and passion, power struggles, humour, anguish, deep spirituality, lust, anger, everything on that spectrum.” She concludes, “People we love can bring out the very best and the absolute worst in us, and we can do that to them, too. Love is always a risk.” In Love And Hate Joan attempts to tackle this complexity with a varied and stylish suite of songs that transcends genre. The album knocks the, ‘girl meets boy, boy leaves girl, girl mopes,’ school of song-writing into cliché corner, while matching its ambitious premise in dizzying detail and glorious melodic invention.
As far as the wider world was concerned Joan Osborne seemed to emerge fully formed in the mid 90s when her major label debut album yielded the global hit single One Of Us. The album Relish was a soar-away success off the back of it, although none of the other tracks plucked from it as singles could maintain the chart topping momentum. In truth the album had more of a rootsy make up, albeit with some high gloss production values. It was also her second album, with her self-released Soul Show: Live at Delta 88 having preceded he chart topper by 4 years.
That Joan had already set up her own label, Womanly Hips, was sure sign of an independent spirit and it was perhaps unsurprising that the pressures of delivering, “More of the same please,” didn’t sit particularly comfortably. What was also clear was that her musical ideas were free ranging and just after the turn of the millennium, she released an album of soul classics, appeared in the film Standing In The Shadows Of Mowtown, also touring with the stars of the film, the engine room of that labels success, The Funk Brothers. Joan also joined The Dead, the post Garcia era incarnation of America’s longest running and greatest jam band.
Those twin roles not only speak of Joan’s range, but the respect that she obviously enjoys amongst her peers. Both acts have a legacy that is beyond legendary, albeit in the Funk Brothers case somewhat anonymously created. Still, neither would be in any hurry to allow any would be diva to bolster her own career on the back of their standing if she didn’t enjoy total respect. Joan continues to be able to mix and match to this day and obviously relishes opportunities to express different strands of her musical personality and is also currently a member of Trigger Hippy, with Steve Gorman and Jackie Green from the Black Crows.
It’s fair to say that all of this and more feeds into the approach to Love And Hate, as Joan once more teams up with Jack Petruzzelli, who brings his guitar and multi-instrumental skills, songwriting and production skills to the party, sharing credits with Joan. The pair also worked together on Joan’s last album, another blues and soul collection that won a Grammy nomination. But given the concept and Joan’s explanations, it’s unsurprisingly a much more mixed musical assortment of styles and varied moods. Crucially it’s a great set of songs to boot as Joan shares credits with jack, Eric Bazillan, who she first worked with back on Relish, keyboard player Keith Cotton who also features on the album. In the songwriting margins are ex-Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas and poet Dorianne Laux, who also add their names to the credits.
It’s worth highlighting the string arrangements of Oliver Manchon, although they give a slightly false impression of where this album is headed over Where We Stand and Work On Me. You know immediately, however, that Joan is in very fine voice and the opening ballad, with it’s gently strummed guitar, gently throbbing acoustic bass, quite but insistent drum shuffle and fine lattice of piano and strings is simply gorgeous. The trick is repeated on Where We Stand, whose opening acoustic guitar is oddly reminiscent of Hotel California, until it suddenly takes an alternative direction to the resolution. It’s a terrific song too.
Lyrically there are some really good things happening throughout and the latter offers us, “The way a whiskey tingles downwards, the way a storm can boil the sea, the way the summer makes everyone younger, that’s the way you work on me.” It’s not all joys, however, as the refrain takes the song on a slightly different trajectory with, “If I had known I would miss you like this, I would have made movies of every kiss.”
But speaking of different trajectories, just the title Mongrels suggests a different mood and with its funky beats and slinky growl of a guitar, it’s a major gear shift. The tone of the lyrics is also one of desperation and animal drive. It’s a crackerjack of a surprise and a nifty little number too and sets up a completely different hue of song style and as promised, a different perspective on the central theme. It’s also notable for featuring the voices of Gail Ann Dorsey, Amy Helm and Catherine Russell, the daughter of Louis Armstrong cohort, Luis Russell. Not a bad team to watch your back!
Train puts us on another track again with its dramatic repetition of a single piano note by way of introduction, it’s another brooding, swollen ballad that takes a striking, almost Hispanic, but very cinematic guitar break. The taut, arpeggiated pop of Up All Night finds Joan on a sultry prowl, while Not Too Well Acquainted returns us to grander lush orchestration, but once more there is an resolution in the melody and the heavy swell of the cellos is augmented by a brass section and it sounds for all the world as if it’s straight from Scott Walker’s back pages.
The title track is another a little hint of European exoticism meets a Jagger / Richards ballad from their golden era and a little hint of menace, despite its sweet strings. The track is sandwiched by a brace of songs that enhance the darker mood. Rocker Thirsty For My Tears, sounds tailor-made for someone to storm the Billboard country charts with, laced with the recriminations of jealousy and, “The only man that can come between us is the one who’s thirsty for my tears, tell me why are you thirsty for my tears.” Kitten’s Got Claws keeps a tension simmering towards an epic climax pumped up by squalling guitars as Joan threatens to break free of the chains of a bitter love, but first demanding, “I want every tear back that I cried.”
Secret Room has a slightly off-centre harmonic structure with another wiff of 60’s exoticism enhanced by the whisper at its heart, although it’s an utterly beautiful song with a brassy uplift. Keep It Underground is another prowl, this time with a bluesy edge and either a Rhodes or Wurlitzer getting down and dirty, only for Raga to return us to the mood of the previous track, although with a gentle folk dance.
All of the above sums up to the constant shift in the fortunes of the heart and the constantly changing musical settings that describe them so perfectly. Joan really is an excellent singer, spirited, soulful, sexy, sweet and sublime by turn, this a masterclass of performance, songwriting and structure with Jack Petruzzelli contributing to the musical styling with equal aplomb. They say that, “Love is a many-splendoured thing,” it turns out that Love And Hate is too.
Review by: Simon Holland