The title of k.d. lang's last album, "Drag," was a pun referring both to the record's smoking theme and to the singer's own gender-bending appearance. But the title was also perfectly suited to the languorousness of her voice. On her new album, "Invincible Summer," lang has traded the smoky air of a dark nightclub for the soft lilt of a seashore breeze.
"Drag" was the record that brought me back to k.d. lang. On a few of the half-dozen or so albums that preceded it (especially "Ingenue"), the way she stretched out tempos and syllables drove me to distraction. She sounded as if she could barely sustain interest in the songs she was singing. But the dreamy ephemerality of "Drag's" immaculately chosen covers ("The Air That I Breathe," "The Joker" and, best of all, "Theme From 'Valley of the Dolls'") matched up beautifully with lang's ability to voice the lazy rhythms of someone arising from an afternoon nap.
Who knows why it took lang so long to realize that an album of summer music was perfect for her? The songs on "Invincible Summer," nearly all of them written by lang and various partners, aren't up to the standard of those on "Drag." She's a far better interpreter than songwriter (though I got a kick out of the reference to "Just a Spoonful of Sugar" from "Mary Poppins" in "It's Happening With You"). But the lyrics finally don't matter much because the record holds together as a mood piece.
The title of the album comes from a quote from Camus ("In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer"). Thematically, the album proceeds from fear of the uncertainties of romance to a willingness to roll the dice. In other words, lang has made a summer record that starts with the unthinkable notion that most summer records try to keep at bay: the realization that paradise can't last. In the first song, "The Consequences of Falling," she even clips the chorus: "The consequence of fall."
Musically, the album, produced by Damian leGassick (who also did the lovely string arrangements), is indebted to bossa nova, the orchestrated nonrock pop epitomized by Jimmie Rodgers' "The Long Hot Summer" and to electronic dance music. Dance music, like German DJ Paul van Dyk's new album "Out There and Back," has reintroduced a melodic romanticism to pop. And the incessant sampling and borrowing of the genre have made once uncool pop music cool. For someone like lang, whose choice of material since she quit a decade of singing country music for contemporary adult pop in 1992 has always been somewhat retro, electronica is a way to indulge her taste and sound up-to-date. She uses the warm melancholy of her vocals as a complement to the strings and swooping melodies, which aim to reproduce the Utopian feel of mid-'60s summer pop.
"Invincible Summer" is a bit of pop archaeology, but it sounds too vital to be a museum piece. In "The Great Gatsby," Daisy says, "I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it." Lang savors every ray of light, every summer breeze.