Sophomore albums can be a figurative bear. A singer-songwriter has his or her entire life to write and develop the songs on the first release, and then about a year to write and record the follow-up, often under very stressful circumstances.
“The hardest thing is losing the people I love,” Rumer told me via e-mail. “I’ve lost two boyfriends since this started because of the touring commitments and pressure of the job. They simply had to move on, and I had to accept that. It’s painful to be alone, and to check into hotels and stare at white walls. To go out and sing and give all this heart and emotion, meet all these people and then go back, take off all the makeup, brush my hair and stare at the white wall again, alone. It’s loneliness like I have never experienced before.”
As a result, the British singer-songwriter decided to deviate from the usual career trajectory and release an all-covers album for her second set, though one with a twist: the songs are all written by men.
“It all started when I came across a song called ‘Long Long Day’ by Paul Simon from his 1983 movie ‘One Trick Pony.’ It was a lesser-known song and, when we jazzed it up with piano and strings, I suddenly thought, ‘I want to do a whole album like this.’ ”
That tune, which wound up as a bonus track on the deluxe iTunes version of her debut Seasons of My Soul album, set into motion what would ultimately become Boys Don’t Cry, a collection of heartfelt songs from the early ‘70s that was released in the U.K. in late May and will see the light of day in the States this September. (It’s available as an import through Amazon at the moment, however.)
“I learned a lot during the process,” she said. “I learned that men are more sensitive than women, actually, and that while their emotions may be obscured, they are still very much there, and run deep. I also learned that men can be cowardly, and a lot of the things that they do that hurt women are because they are more cowardly than mean.”
The project encompassed recording so many songs, in fact, that at one point she contemplated making it a double-CD.
“There are so many demos and extra tracks,” she said. “Getting them down to 16 for the special edition was a real battle.” (It reminds me of the lines “deadlines and commitments/what to leave in, what to leave out” from Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”) Among the songs she left behind: Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky,” which she demoed but decided not to move forward with.
But there’s no quibbling with the final selections, which on the regular edition range from the obscure (Jimmy Webb’s “P.F. Sloan”) to the well-known (Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile”), and include some truly jaw-dropping performances – Isaac Hayes’ “Soulsville” is one. The special edition, which features four additional songs, adds a lilting, lovely reading of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” and a spine-tingling rendition of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.” Other highlights include Clifford T. Ward’s longing “Home Thoughts from Abroad” and a song I’ve taken to singing to my cat, Todd Rundgren’s “Be Nice to Me.” Each time through you’re guaranteed to hear something new, whether in the shading of her vocals or in the instrumental accompaniment.
It’s near-impossible to write about Rumer without mentioning Karen Carpenter, of course, given the remarkable similarities between their vocals. There are times when her voice dips into a lower register, such as Richie Havens’ “It Could Be the First Day” and Paul Williams’ “Travelin’ Boy” – that the resemblance is so uncanny that one could be forgiven for thinking an unreleased Carpenters song had been slipped into the mix. Even in those moments, however, or during the well-known numbers, she immerses herself in the emotions and meanings of the songs to such an extent that comparisons and original versions fade away. She doesn‘t just make them her own, she makes you forget everything except the song at hand.
In short, listening to Boys Don’t Cry is like stepping through a time warp and arriving in the post-Woodstock, pre-Watergate era of adult pop, soft rock and bell-bottom jeans.