by Peter Reilly
“When my teeth are at rest in a glass by my bed/And my hair lies somewhere in a drawer/Then the world doesn’t seem like a very nice place/Not a very nice place anymore.” It’s Peggy Lee singing those singularly unbeguiling words, in her 3 a.m. pitch-dark-side-of-the-morning voice, from “Ready to Begin Again,” the opening song of her new album Mirrors. By the song’s end, newly bathed, hair and teeth retrieved and in place (“I’m ready to begin again/Looking fresh and bright I trust/Ready to begin again/As everybody – must”), one of the great survivors has given you a lesson in the fine art of survival. It’s strong , mordant stuff, and needless to say, it is superbly intrepreted by Lee.
The consistent level of quality this finest of all our popular singers has maintained over two and a half decades in the entertainment firmaments is unique, I think, in the annals of American music, for Peggy Lee does not merely survive – she triumphs. Mirrors (how does that title grab you, by the way, all you counters of grey hair and smoothers of wrinkles?), it must be confessed, is not – for me, at least – the ideal Peggy Lee album. It is at times pretentious, gimmicky, and rather overdecorated even for her, but she nonetheless finds room in between the furbelows to demonstrate, incredibly, that she continues to grow as an interpretive artist – one would have thought that she had already scaled all the peaks, that there was nothing left to conquer.
Mirrors is a rather special album. Its ten songs were written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (they did her classic “Is That All There Is?,” as you may recall), lavishly and idiosyncratically arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel, and engineered (mostly by Hank Cicalo) to give Lee the kind of precision that is the audio equivalent of the justly famed lighting cues that so ably conjure up a whole spectrum of moods in her live performances. This is the same Lieber and Stoller, by the way, who gave us “Jailhouse Rock,” “Poison Ivy,” and other random goodies of early and middle-period rock. The difference between those little efforts and what they have done here for Lee is the difference between button mushrooms and truffles. For instance, there is a little six-line gem titled “I Remember” (“I remember/When you loved me/I lie on my bed/Hands under my head/And remember when you loved me”), pensively and coolly performed by Lee, that simply leaves no doubt that they are all grown up now.
“Ready to Begin Again,” admirable as it is, is perhaps a bit too rough on the sensibilities of those who might best identify with it ever to gain wide popularity. “The Case of M. J.” (“How old were you when your father went away?”), another strong idea that ticks remorselessly away like a small jeweled time-bomb, may be a better candidate. The ambiance throughout is determinedly theatrical and not of our own – or indeed, of any real – time. It is of the theater and the film image of the Weimar Republic, a glittering depravity set to the seductive undercurrent of a Teutonic jazz waltz. Even when the songs lapse into gaudy, overblown Weill-Brecht pastiche (as in “Professor Hauptmann’s Performing Dogs,” “A Little White Ship,” or, most spectacularly, “Tango”), the effect heightened by Mandel’s Peter Kreuder-like arrangements, is one of dreamy exoticism. Their very unreality paradoxically justifies Lee’s only performing fault: a habit of perfection that sometimes threatens to seal us all – singer, song, and audience – in a drop of polyvinyl amber.
Three other songs, the sinuous and sexy “Some Cats Know,” the Cole Porterish “Say It” (“You are not my Galahad/Nor I your Guinevere/I am not in love with you/Nor you with me, my dear.”), and the ragtimey “I’ve Got Them Feeling Too Good Today Blues” are, on the other hand, superbly crafted, just-right pieces of special material, ravishingly performed by Lee in that inimitably drawly, mush-mouthed, pelvis-swinging style that reminds us she’s still one of the best jazz singers around.
Love letters tend to be more effective when kept brief, so I’ll only add that it is a matter of great personal comfort to me to know that Peggy Lee is always ready to begin again, as experimental albums such as this one so happily prove. She is a national treasure, an occasion for Bicentenial pride and unceasing celebration.