When artists step out of the limelight for any prolonged period, their return always raises questions. Will they revisit a certain era? Will they try something boldly different? Will they remain as strong artistically? Or will they disappoint as a shadow of their former selves?
On "Watershed," her first album of all new material in eight years, k.d. lang answers those questions in a way that should satisfy longtime fans.
Lang certainly hasn't been absent since 2000's "Invincible Summer." In the interim she applied her world-class pipes to a live album, a covers record dedicated to her fellow Canadian artists, and a gorgeous disc of duets with Tony Bennett.
But "Watershed," out today, is the first glimpse we've gotten of lang the songwriter in some time, and she's in a very pleasant if decidedly mellow mood.
If it had to be reduced to a word, "Watershed" could be described as snuggly. A warm, romantic glow radiates out of the languorous music. The mellifluous melodies and tasteful instrumentation fall in line with the adult-contemporary pop of previous albums such as "Ingenue" and "Invincible Summer."
But here, lang and longtime producer Ben Mink strip away the gloss and emphasize the more natural textures of acoustic guitar, hand percussion, and strings. Banjo and steel guitars seep in but don't recall lang's country beginnings as much as lend an earthiness to the proceedings.
Draped over the music like a comforter is lang's sensual murmur. She persuasively extols the virtues of naked afternoons on "Sunday." Promises of taking a lover to delirious heights and occasional fits of aggravation inform the sweet-natured "Once in a While." And "Close Your Eyes" is a delicate lullaby that offers solace and security in the roomy confines of lang's sturdy yet restrained voice.
A few edgier sentiments do rear their heads from under the covers. There is the coolness of the "frozen lovers" in "I Dream of Spring," and "Thread" finds lang resignedly pondering conflict and divisiveness in a manner that could be read personally or politically. And the kind of knee-jerk self-laceration familiar to many women flickers as lang laments being her own worst critic in "Flame of the Uninspired." But contemplation prevails musically as even the chillier topics are swaddled in a sauna sensibility.
That pensive, lazy Sunday quality flirts with droopiness as the album winds toward its conclusion. Fans of the power center of lang's voice might wish that she had visited some other days of the week - say, a feisty Tuesday or a wicked Wednesday; then she could've unleashed a few money notes and picked up the tempo a bit. But that kind of move would've disrupted the sleepy haze that ultimately makes "Watershed" feel like the welcome hug of an old friend.