By Daniel Garrett
Barbra Streisand, Love is the Answer
Produced by Diana Krall
Co-produced by Tommy LiPuma
Executive Producer: Barbra Streisand
Columbia Records (Sony), 2009
Barbra Streisand’s voice has been like gold: as natural, as firm and flexible, as precious; and on her album Love is the Answer, she presents the perspective of a mature woman reflecting on life and love, and delivers the songs not only with warmth and wisdom but with a candor and a caressing tenderness that lend the most human tone to her gorgeous instrument. Of wisdom, there are things that are hard to learn amid the ambition and hunger of early life, even when one tries to learn them, but time can teach us, force the lessons upon us, in a way that our own best intentions cannot: and acceptance, compassion, and fairness can be, unfortunately, among those difficult ideals. The first song on Love is the Answer offers no complaints and no regrets: the song “Here’s to Life” is a salute that many of us hope to make with conviction, as Streisand does here with the Artie Butler-Phyllis Molinary song, featuring Robert Hurst on bass and Tamir Hendelman on piano. It is in Streisand’s inflections—her diction, pacing, and tone—that one can identify some of Streisand’s talent, as she remembers a love in the composition “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” which Frank Sinatra sang (it was written by Bob Hilliard and David Mann, and here has a piano solo by Diana Krall, who serves as Streisand’s producer for Love is the Answer). Streisand’s inflections, like that of Sinatra, return dignity and understanding to human experience. Everything does not have to be shallow and vulgar. Stupidity is not an inevitability. Love is possible. “I have a hand for your hand,” Streisand sings, comforting, embracing, in “Gentle Rain,” a song by Luiz Bonfa and Matt Dubey that has a light, percussive rhythm.
Emotion is sometimes scoffed at, as if it were unique to only a few people. While I am not fond of false or excessive feeling—what we think of by the word sentimentality—I do find the honest expression of emotion honorable and necessary. Fear of being thought old-fashion and fear of being rejected as too earnest, nerdy, or sensitive have produced a popular culture that too frequently lacks positive character. The fear of feeling is adolescent; and, very often, the dominant culture is adolescent. How can it be admirable to make choices based on fear in order to appear—rather than be—confident and strong? Serious artists, especially mature women artists such as Streisand, assume the elemental importance of emotion, of relationship; and such artists create or sustain traditions that do that as well. Tradition exists—and remains or returns—because it offers genuine resources, because over time it has been developed to recognize and reward genuine human needs and hopes. Of course, few, if any, traditions can be accepted whole; and these days most of us are inclined to take what we need or want from different traditions. Consequently, Streisand’s work can be favored by the same person who likes African music, Chinese pottery, English literature, French films, German philosophy, Indian theater, Japanese technology, Spanish dance, Thai food, and select aspects of the world’s culture. Innovative work is important too, especially if it allows new energies, ideas, and perspectives that are intelligent and useful, but we have had bogus innovations in which nasty attitudes, incomplete craft, and naked idiocy are substituted for both the content and form of art, leading the more knowing and sensitive of us—and the more impatient among us—back to certain traditions, such as the classic American songs (and correspondent international songs) that Streisand sings.
The crossroads of a relationship—do you go or stay? and what are the possibilities and consequences?—are delved into in “If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas),” a Jacques Brel (and Rod McKuen) piece that is sung by Streisand in English and French in a voice dark with premonition, a voice that rises in anxious anticipation before settling down. (Diana Krall plays piano.) “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman, is a song I have listened to other performers sing, but, truly, I have not heard the song before: its lyrics, with lines such as “morning’s kiss wakes trees and flowers” are infused with the sense of what love can be, of how it can change one’s vision, and of what was lost when “something went wrong.” The song is like a literary short story and Streisand’s voice has an improvisatory quality. It is one of the songs I like best on Love Is the Answer.
“Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute. Where’s the real stuff of life to cling to?” Streisand asks in “Make Someone Happy,” which advises, “Love is the answer—someone to love is the answer.” (The song is by Jule Styne with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.) Streisand’s tone has a bit of a rasp here, near the song’s end, something that is unusual for her—and it may be both a sign of age and of her ability to accept human fragility, including the fragility of both her heart and her voice. Love does become possible when such acceptance is present. We have to accept ourselves before we can accept others. Love is in the details—in songs such as “Where Do You Start?,” a song written by Johnny Mandel with Streisand’s longtime songwriting friends the Bergmans (Alan and Marilyn), in which the composition’s narrator takes stock of a household, and a dissolving relationship, as well as stock of future prospects, and thus within the song romance becomes real, and order and disorder are tangible. There are seasons of sun and rain, of loneliness and love, and “as time goes drifting by, the willow bends and so do I” Streisand sings in Mandel’s (and Paul Francis Webster’s) “A Time for Love.”
Fame, if you get it, comes and goes—for most, but not for Streisand, who has maintained a significant place in American culture, though not the same place: once the most popular of icons, she has become a well-known elder, a master artist, a legend. I myself discovered Streisand when I was young, decades ago—a southern black boy discovering a very successful woman who had been a Brooklyn Jewish girl (like me, she had loved literature, film, and music, finding in art what she had not found in the circumstances or people she knew ); how bored I had been as that boy by what was in the town around me, how interested in thoughtful culture, how much I needed arts that recognized feelings—that offered expression and freedom rather than conformity to dull social habits involving family, religion, and sports. In that isolation and rebellion one can become a maverick or a misfit. Through both discipline and passion, Streisand has maintained her standards, sustained her art; and in that work is both innocence and knowledge, tears and laughter, sometimes disbelieving laughter, sometimes rueful laughter, as when she sings of laughing at friends’ prediction of faltering love in “Here’s that Rainy Day,” only to find they were right.
Do we let hope blind us to the possibility of heartache? Do we let the fact of heartache deny the dream of love? Friends can be skeptical, sometimes rightly; and that is the case in Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Here’s that Rainy Day,” but it does not rain always, and in the bossa nova “Love Dance,” it happens that “love learns to dance” and “we loved, we slept, we left the lights on”—as in that piece, “Love Dance,” by Ivan Lins and Gilson Peranzzetta, “when pure emotion takes the moment, we take the chance.” (Paulinho DaCosta handles percussion on “Love Dance,” as he does on “Gentle Rain”) In another composition that I like very much, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” expanding expectation and deflating disappointment, with happy self-delusion and sad self-awareness, unfold in verses like chapters. The song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, allows Streisand an interpretation full of nuance and texture as she sings lyrics such as “when your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.” However, there is calm acceptance of things as they are, of time, of things not done, of things to come, in Leonard Bernstein’s (and Comden and Green’s) “Some Other Time,” and encouragement in “You Must Believe in Spring,” written by Michel Legrand with the Bergmans, and featuring here Bill Charlap on piano as Streisand sings in her fine, familiar voice: “you must believe in love and trust.” Truly, Love is the Answer is the excellent work of a master.
Daniel Garrett is a writer who admires Henry James, Chekhov, and Rainer Rilke, as well as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Edward P. Jones, Michael Thomas, Luigi Pirandello, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, C.K. Williams, John Koethe, and Reginald Shepherd, among other writers. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in All About Jazz, The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Garrett has said, “Creativity, intelligence, sensitivity, and taste are all qualities I associate with artists, and for the longest time—ever since I was a boy—when I thought of the word artist, Barbra Streisand was one of the persons who first came to mind. I was embarrassed later, but years in the past now, when something I wrote on the arts mentioned her and the computer ‘corrected’ the spelling of her first name, putting in the ‘a’ that she had dropped, and my article appeared on the internet with that error. I am pleased to still find so much pleasure and significance in Streisand’s work.”