It was a canny move on the part of producer Stevie Van Zandt — he of E Street Band and “Sopranos” fame — not to try to shoehorn a “modern” sound onto “Introducing Darlene Love,” his comeback vehicle for perhaps the greatest backup singer of all time. After all, if there’s anyone who doesn’t need a reboot it’s Love, whose soulful, booming vocals are, amazingly, just as rich as they were when she first belted out “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in 1963.
Instead he goes full-Spector for most of the album, and the results are joyous — for Love, who sounds like she’s having the time of her life, for Van Zandt, who gets to indulge his inner Wall of Sound, and for songwriting collaborators like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Jimmy Webb, who contribute lush pop confections that could have come straight out of the ‘60s-era transistor radios they probably once kept under their pillows.
The two tracks Springsteen penned are definite standouts — in particular “Night Closing In,” which sounds like a Ronettes record tinged with Springsteen-ian melancholy. Unlike the redemptive sunset in his own “Night,” the darkness on this track is an unwelcome reminder of a lost love, and Love sells it beautifully amid the bells and strings: “The morning light greets me when I wake, and for just one moment I forget my heartache,” she starts off, before heartbreakingly declaring that “Baby, I can feel the night closing in.” It’s one of those tracks that makes you happy to be sad.
Springsteen’s other contribution, “Just Another Lonely Mile” is a classic Springsteen track about driving (all night?) to reunite with a lover, albeit very slowly, apparently: “Just another lonely mile, a few more hours my friend,” Love sings. Even if it doesn’t make sense geographically, the sentiment — “our special kiss, the things I miss, will soon be in my arms again” — is pitch perfect, and Love imbues the words with deep longing and visceral anticipation.
Costello’s “Forbidden Nights” is another highlight, with its summerific sha-la-las and lavish orchestration, although his “Still Too Soon To Know,” a spurned lover ballad, suffers from a little too much Lite FM loginess. Still, it’s a thrill to hear Love trade vocals with fellow Phil Spector alum Bill Medley. Other tracks, by Webb, Linda Perry and Joan Jett, among others, beautifully recapture — in particular on Love’s cover of Tina Turner’s glorious “River Deep, Mountain High” — a long-lost ‘60s pop glory. (Maybe inching into the early ‘70s at points, like in the Michael Des Barres wah-wah guitar soul stirrer “Painkiller.”)
The whole affair is clearly a labor of love (Love?) for Van Zandt, whose airtight production and arrangements nod to Spector’s influence without being overly reverent (reverence is not something Stevie’s especially known for). And his songwriting contributions are no slouches either: Propulsive album opener “Among The Believers” touches on his political leanings, but at the end of the day is really a prayer for a better world. And the disc’s closer, “Jesus Is The Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’)” is a glorious gospel stomper that’s bound to send audiences out of theaters riding on a cloud for the remainder of Love’s career.
Hopefully that’s a long time coming; meanwhile, while “Introducing Darlene Love” may not break a lot of new ground, it’s a wondrous throwback that gives Love the chance to belt gloriously and bask in a much-belated spotlight. Who deserves it more?