k.d. lang has long been famous for her world-class voice and outsized personality. When she was introduced in the 1980s as a country singer, her androgynous look and taste for kitsch gave Nashville pause even when she recorded Shadowland, a countrypolitan album produced by the legendary Owen Bradley. By the time she happened upon a mass audience with the supple pop of 1992's Ingenue, she was a very public lesbian and animal-rights activist. But that album's incandescent single, "Constant Craving," was also lang's last brush with the top of the charts. 1995's All You Can Eat sounded labored compared to Ingenue, while 1997's Drag was an arch, misguided collection of cover songs associated with smoking.
invincible summer, however, is a strong rebound that finds lang supported by the sleek, techno-lite production of Damian leGassick, a protégé of William Orbit introduced to lang by Madonna. The brisk beats and percolating keyboards of "Summerfling" (RealAudio excerpt) embody the collection's resolutely lightweight theme: the intoxicating allure of romance ("The smell of Sunday in our hair") particularly when it's accompanied by the warmth of the sun ("You ran on the beach with Kennedy flair"). lang has said the album grew out of her relocation to Southern California and her immersion in music soaked in sunshine, from Brazilian pop to the folk-rock of the Mamas & the Papas. lang might not be the Beach Boys' definition of a California girl, but invincible summer should sound just fine on the drive to the beach.
One major change here is that lang wrote but one song with longtime collaborator Ben Mink: "Love's Great Ocean" (RealAudio excerpt), a ballad that fairly floats on dreamy keyboards and multitracked voices. Still, the material on the album mostly co-written by lang with bassist David Piltch or drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. is among her best. "Extraordinary Thing" earns its title by the ease with which its tuneful verse slips into its joyful chorus. ("My ordinary game/ Predictable and plain/ Has never been the same/ Since you came waltzing in/ Waltzing in/ I'm falling ... I'm falling"). The bumpy guitars-keyboards-strings ensemble on "It's Happening With You" suggests an uptown rendering of Tom Waits. "Simple" ("I am calm/ In oblivion/ Calm, as I ever have been") argues that love isn't as complicated an emotion as it's made out to be; leGassick helps lang make her point with an intricate arrangement spiced by Jon Hassell's trumpet and lang's lovely harmonies.
invincible summer is top-heavy with ballads, and leGassick's production can be a little sterile. So, while the cornet horn line in "Suddenly" will make you think of Burt Bacharach, the album's overall frosty instrumental sound won't. No matter, though, for this is thoroughly modern pop at the service of a great singer and with the lone non-original here, the David Nowels co-authored "The Consequences of Falling" (RealAudio excerpt), lang has found perhaps her most beguiling song since "Constant Craving." "Are you breathing what I'm breathing?" begins the lyric, and lang's voice fairly swoons through the billowy, softly percussive arrangement. lang sings as if she's truly falling in love, and it's a consequence that's a wonder to behold.