Ever since I was a little boy, Barbra Streisand has occupied the center of my musical universe.
The way she pours her entire being into every single song is my performance model to this day, even though one can aspire to her astonishing stylistic range only as both a musician and an actress, as evidenced by all those Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and so forth.
And then there's that glorious voice that soars and throbs.
My admiration for Babs is not blind, however. I saw The Main Event. I've heard the whiniest song ever written, You Don't Bring Me Flowers. And most of her recordings of the past decade or so suffer from an anodyne complacency to which I suppose her decades of intense artistry have entitled her.
Yet now she has released a new album of duets with 12 male vocalists, Partners, that is a brilliant reinvention of herself. And at No. 1 in sales both as units and on iTunes ensures her the rarest distinction of being the only artist in history to have a No. 1 album in each of the past six decades.
First, I must call attention to the gorgeous sound of her voice itself. Folks, the woman is 72 years old and has lost only maybe 20 percent of the bloom off her voice. The astounding perfection of her vocal technique and judicious performing decisions throughout her career have preserved beautifully one of the most superb instruments God ever endowed to anyone.
And now the old verve is back I hadn't heard her sing with that same emotional flair in years, and it just reinforces my fandom all the more for this opportunity to wallow in all that passion once again.
And what a shrewd businesswoman she is. With this mix of her best old hits and a few new offerings, each performed with a different male superstar duet partner, she has something both novel and familiar to market, while tapping in to the 12 crossover fan bases of her partners, many of whom in turn will want to discover Barbra's original versions of these songs. I myself want to delve into the music of some of these men with whose work I have been previously unfamiliar. The strategy is sheer genius.
Props to producer Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, who has given the album a great groove and lavish orchestrations. What is more, his duet with Barbra of her Oscar-winning song Evergreen is one of the album's highlights.
Among the many people I've already discussed this album with, there is a wide variety of opinion regarding which other duets are the real standouts. There is general consensus that my two favorites are definitely at the top of the heap.
I adore I Still Can See Your Face, her poignant duet with blind "popera" singer Andrea Bocelli. It is a ravishing song, and both of their voices sound magnificent. Not since Donna Summer in the 1970s has Barbra had a duet partner who could equal her power and intensity.
The most beautiful song on the album, everyone seems to agree, is the duet with her son, Jason Gould. She gives him the entire first verse of How Deep Is the Ocean, and he sings like his mama. His voice has a luscious beauty and freedom of expression like hers, and the sentiment of the lyric as communicated between them bespeaks a sincere mother-son love that I will henceforth always associate with this song.
No offense to Barry Gibb, but I think Barbra's new version of What Kind of Fool with the amazing John Legend is better than the original. The same goes for New York State of Mind with its composer, the legendary Billy Joel. I also really like her country tune I'd Want It To Be You with Blake Shelton.
All the duets work, with the guys proving once again why they are stars: Michael Bublé (It Had To Be You), Stevie Wonder (People), John Mayer (Come Rain Or Come Shine), and Lionel Richie (The Way We Were) are all fabulous. I was disappointed by Somewhere with Josh Groban, mainly because the arrangement fails to climax. But after Barbra's rendition on The Broadway Album in 1985, who can ever top it, herself included?
I get what they were going for in piecing together an ingenious duet arrangement of Love Me Tender with the long-dead Elvis Presley, but I could live without it. It's kind of creepy.
For an overall lesson in artistic integrity and longevity, observe "the greatest star," Barbra Streisand, ever relevant, truly evergreen on Partners.