Once upon a time, Irish singer/songwriter Imelda May went with her sister to the hairdressers for some trichological TLC and a bit of cheering up. It wasn’t a new do, new me thing; it’s just what we women do. Anon, one boozy afternoon, the Dubliner decided to give make-up artist friend Lisa Mejuto AAA to create a fresh look with a new palette.

One year later and the remarkable reimagining of Imelda May is all everyone still wants to talk about. Grant it, Imelda May looks fantastic, but then again, she always did! Now, can we move on?

As its title would suggest, May’s new and fifth album, ‘Life. Love. Flesh. Blood’ is a musical-diary cataloguing the Irish woman’s most intimate feelings and experiences from a particularly roller-coaster period of her life. It’s all there – the highs, the lows, the thrills, spills and pain – written in stark font, performed with visceral honesty.

A myriad of influences – Roger Miller, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson – float to the surface of an album that flows from blues through bluegrass to gospel and beyond. It was produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, whose description of May as “full of life … I was inspired by her honesty and generosity, and I continue to be intrigued” could similarly be the tagline for what is an intriguing collection of songs.

Contributors to #LLFB were plucked straight from the top of the singer’s collaborative wishlist. In addition to those made by T Bone himself, there are contributions from Jeff Beck and Jools Holland, both of whom May has previously supported. The extensive troupe of backing musicians, personally handpicked by Burnett, included the renowned triumvirate of guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, David Lynch), bassist Zach Dawes (TLSP) and percussionist Jay Bellerose (Elton John, BB King).  One look at their collective, collaborative history gives a clear indication as to the stylistic direction this album was destined to take.

Photo RTE Late Late Show

Masters of intuitive interpretation T Bone & Co have provided a steady hand in guiding the former rockabilly away from her more high-octane “Boom Boom” roots towards the calmer waters of sensual balladry and impassioned blue-eyed soul.

Not that Imelda May needed much guiding.  Even before she started writing the songs for this album, the singer knew she both wanted and needed a change in direction.  The 50s swing & rockabilly style was beginning to pigeon-hole her talents. The freedom of moving adrift on uncharted waters helped not just to unleash the emotional avalanche within, but to find a new voice.

Album openers Call Me and Black Tears set a mood of captivating intimacy; their music is both beautiful and sensual with Imelda’s May’s vocal dressed to fit.  Call Me is a gentle country ‘prayer’, of such subtlety it echoes masters like Glen Campbell, over which May lays down an exquisitely tender vocal.  

Black Tears is pure Patsy Cline Crazy, in which the strains of Jeff Beck’s slide guitar tease heartache while May’s bewilderingly poignant vocal, is both emotionally shattering and endearing.  Endearing because of Imelda May’s key USP – absolute honesty – an ingredient vital to the integrity of the album.   The song features a truly sublime Beck solo which the virtuoso guitarist cleverly tails with a sassy zip, the signal for May to fire up her vocal dynamo. She duly obliges.

While the record features songs about heartache and breaking up, let us be clear on one point, this is NOT a breakup album.  It does what it says on the tin, as it were. This is a personal reflection in open letter form :-

Life – religion, humanity, failure, shopping, childhood, the future, adult responsibility; Love – (romantic) heartbreak, remorse, pain, optimism, wonder, naivety, as well as family love; Flesh – sins of, sexual chemistry and electricity, “primal pleasure” in the “gutter of love”: and, Blood – one’s own flesh and blood. While each facet of May’s life can and has been treated individually, they are also inextricably linked.

The Dublin native is renowned not just for a vibrant and sunny disposition but for her natural warmth, something she radiates in spades and which is to varying degrees, inherent in every track on the album. It is there in the glow of her voice, between the lines, in the glory of her harmonies.

It is at its most evident on her collaboration with piano legend, Jools Holland whose skillful playing has a remarkable dexterity, perfect mastery of nuance and flawless finish.  When It’s My Time with its impeccable symmetry between organ and piano, is a soulful Gospel number mined in the heartlands of the ‘Deep South’. As it builds into full-on ‘gospel choir’ mode, the breadth and depth of May’s personality shines through, as does the strength of her very genuine religious beliefs.

Life. Love. Flesh. Blood wanders down a lot of country lanes, not least on Sixth Sense which, with its cheeky honky tonky swagger and bluegrass ‘fused guitar riffs is pure Roger Miller soundscape.  Add in an unashamedly seductive ‘come hither I’m yours‘ vocal delivering ‘brazen gal’ lyrics and you’ve got yourself the kind of song Mae West would have gladly made her own.

In a similar vein, How Bad Can A Good Girl Be is as sultry as it is desirous, with May’s vocal drifting into Chrissie Hynde territory while guitarist Ribot’s sound is very Chris Isaak (given their similarity in style it’s no surprise that director David Lynch has collaborated with both).

There are plenty of 50s sensibilities dotted throughout. Both Human with its gorgeous harmonies and Bad Habit, a clappy, toe-tapper that’s as close to vintage Imelda as the album gets, have classic 50s sounds.  Leave Me Lonely flies the flag for mainstream pop ballad while album closer, The Girl I Used To Be with its heartfelt poesie, is an ode to childhood with an Irish trad-folk vibe that recalls The Ferrymen and Damien Dempsey.

Album winner for this reviewer is Levitate, a song which sees May channelling her inner Julie London and that has the most divine, languid calypso beat that would make the perfect backdrop to a romantic rhumba. As they’d say in The Liberties, ‘It’s pure class’.

This album should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Imelda May on TV, performing covers with countless artists from across the musical spectrum. Life. Love. Flesh. Blood was in many ways, an album waiting to happen.  While sub-plots to core themes might have varied, an album based on an honest account of a life lived with passion, brimming with love and filled with optimism was always going to one day find its way from heart to pen to mic.

There’s a line in the doo wop lilt Should’ve Been You that goes, “who takes care of me?” … Something tells me Imelda May is well able to take care of herself, that she already has and she always will.

Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is out now via Decca Records & is available via all Digital Channels & in physical CD/Vinyl formats from good record stores (including Tower Records and Golden Discs Ireland).

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