Barbra Streisand’s Latest Is Surprisingly Political (And Astonishingly Good)
Ever wonder what’s on Barbra Streisand’s mind these days? Well, wonder no more. This past Friday, Streisand released a brand-new album, the aptly titled “Walls,” which kicks off with a new song called “What’s on My Mind.”
“What happened to just being kind? That’s what’s on my mind,” Streisand tells us, on one of the terrific new album’s kinder, gentler numbers. Streisand is just warming us up before she digs in deep on the most pointedly political album of her career — her first serious studio album in nearly a decade, featuring a half-dozen new songs along with some well-chosen (and not-so-well-chosen) pop standards.
First things first — “Walls” sounds exactly like what a new Barbra Streisand album should sound like. There are plenty of syrupy ballads with overwrought string arrangements alongside a few attempts at subtly updating her music so that it won’t sound totally out of place on adult contemporary pop radio. The 76-year-old vocalist can still whisper and scream with the best of them, and if there’s been any technological enhancement employed to make her voice sound so good, it’s been done tastefully enough so that you don’t notice. There are even a few spots where Streisand allows a bit of mature, vocal grit to remain on the record, which suits well the seriousness of her mission here, which is to protest Donald Trump and what he hath wrought to our nation.
It’s no surprise that Trump has been on the mind of Streisand, who has leveraged her celebrity over the decades in the service of liberal political activism. But she’s never gone this far in the opposite direction, letting her political beliefs intrude on her music. And to that, we say hey Barbra, it’s about time!
“Don’t Lie to Me,” the album’s first single, works on several levels. You could hear it as an admonition to a lover, or, as she has suggested, as a bit of autobiography from a traumatic childhood. But it’s impossible not to hear lyrics such as “Why can’t you just tell me the truth?/Hard to believe the things you say” and “You can build towers of bronze and gold / You can build castles in the sky” and not think of the Liar-in-Chief. And Streisand gets extra credit for echoing one of John Lennon’s most scathing songs by using the phrase “How do you sleep?” for the song’s second refrain.
Unfortunately, she follows up that number with a version of John Lennon’s sentimental, overplayed ballad “Imagine,” wrapped up in a medley with “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1967. She seems too much in a rush here to back away from her righteous anger.
And why does Streisand further temper her outrage with a version of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David chestnut “What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)” Actually, what the world really needs now is assertive resistance to neo-Fascism, or at least a Barbra Streisand cover of the Clash’s “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (“All over people changing their votes / Along with their overcoats / If Adolf Hitler flew in today / They’d send a limousine anyway”) or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (“God save the queen / The fascist regime / They made you a moron / A potential H-bomb”).
But Streisand does cleverly wrap things up with a version of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” A Depression-era ditty written in 1929 by the Jewish songwriting team of Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, it eventually became the campaign song for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign and a de facto Democratic Party anthem. Streisand actually first recorded the tune in 1962; it was her first single, and it has been a staple of her concerts ever since. This new version, however, is given a counterintuitive arrangement, with discordant, ominous strings working against the song’s manifest content, making it perhaps the most subversive number she has ever recorded.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).