It’s not uncommon for a performer to gain creative momentum after leaving the starting gate, but few modern singers have developed their art at the exponential rate of Canada’s k.d. lang. Over the course of her first seven albums, Alberta native Kathryn Dawn Lang went from cowgirl country-western rock’n’roll to the lush synthesizer ambience of modern balladry, growing as a vocalist from a Patsy Cline-idolizing belter to a controlled, sophisticated chanteuse, revealing a stunning instrument along the way. Factor in that lang walks the commercial walk without sacrificing her dignity and that she is one of the first open lesbians to ever crack the Top 10, and she transcends simple pop stardom as a boundary-busting heroine.
A Truly Western Experience is a good-natured debut (sincere down to its cover pic of Patsy) that can’t decide where it’s headed. There’s feverish rockabilly (“Bopalena”), weepy aspiring Nashville country (“Pine and Stew”), smoky blues (“Busy Being Blue”), western swing (“Up to Me”), rustic singer/songwriterdom (“Tickled Pink”) and, naturally, a Cline hand-me-down (“Stop, Look and Listen”). lang can certainly sing here, but it’s an equivocal introduction, to say the least.
After hooking up with guitarist/mandolinist/fiddler Ben Mink (who has been her writing/recording/production partner ever since), lang made her major-label debut, Angel With a Lariat. Produced by Dave Edmunds and including a cover of Joe South’s “Rose Garden” (a hit for Lynn Anderson), the album is a weird rock’n’roll interpolation of barn-dance country, with lang overzealously playing the part of rambunctious barker and Edmunds still suffering the adverse after-effects of his time spent being produced by Jeff Lynne. lang’s singing is sure and strong but, other than the straightforward country balladry of her own “Diet of Strange Places” and the melancholy oldie “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” the songs suffer from two-step predictability and the futile attempt to mix oil and water.
Though she’s filed under “country” in many minds, k.d. lang has always operated outside the Nashville establishment. But for one shining moment in 1988, she went from pressing her nose against the glass to the heart of the country-western world, recording Shadowland in Tennessee with Owen Bradley, the veteran producer who had supervised the studio career of Patsy Cline 30 years earlier. lang maintains her individuality on this album of standards, even in the daunting presence of legends like Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee, all of whom put in guest appearances. Cooing through nightclub numbers like Peggy Lee’s “Black Coffee,” quavering through yearn-fests like “Shadowlands,” she forges a distinct identity somewhere between swaggering country boy and angelic girl crooner. Whether she comfortably inhabits the songs or not, the enormously subtlety and skill in her singing is unmistakable.
Absolute Torch and Twang wheels back and forth between genteel and rollicking neo-country. The “torch” is in achy-breaky ballads (“Nowhere to Stand,” “Pullin’ Back the Reins”), while the “twang” is in funny do-si-dos like “Full Moon Full of Love” and “Big Boned Gal.” But as hard as lang tries to be sincere, she can’t seem to dislodge the tongue from her cheek. That doesn’t necessarily take her out of the country music tradition; she’s just chosen to identify with the genre’s campy, humorous elements.
Switching gears in 1992, lang made Ingénue, a cathartic flood of dreamy ballads to wash clean her heart, obviously poisoned by an unquenched romantic obsession. The album captures lang’s musical and emotional struggle between succumbing to, and breaking free from, her pain. The opening lines say it all: “Save me/Save me from you/But pave me/The way to you.” More importantly, Ingénue signals a shift toward a more unbounded, luxurious and contemporary approach to songwriting. There are precious few hints of country here, just the honey-drip of “Constant Craving” and the saucy pop of “Miss Chatelaine.”
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant’s movie, keeps running with that shift, sculpting a lush setting that’s part piano bar, part sagebrush plain. “Keep Me Moving” is a Sylvester-style disco raveup, complete with flute and horns, while “Hush Sweet Lover” is a slinky lounge ballad blooming with strings and “Cowgirl Pride” is a from-the-hip, by-the-book bluegrass stomp. Sandwiched between the songs are semi-jazzy piano instrumentals — nice but far less intriguing than titles like “Kundalini Yoga Waltz,” “Don’t Be a Lemming Polka” and “Virtual Vortex” might imply. Lifted by Love contains three remixes of two album songs, a remix of “Miss Chatelaine” from the previous LP and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” a duet with Erasure’s Andy Bell recorded for the Coneheads soundtrack.
Following her life-sapping obsession on Ingénue and her behind-the-scenes role on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, lang retakes center stage with All You Can Eat. On the cover, she’s standing tall, hands proudly on her hips, having located her self-confident swagger and set it to a totally different sound. Nearly a dance record, All You Can Eat is driven by languid syncopation and lang’s formidable pipes and mystical rhapsodizing. On “Sexuality,” she addresses the issue head on for the first time: “How bad could it be/If you would fall in love with me?” Listening to the voluptuousness of lang’s alto, the answer is obvious.