IN SEPTEMBER OF LAST YEAR, a small record label in Boston released an extraordinary album, though few beyond a handful of medium-sized newspapers noticed, and several only as the 30-year-old singer arrived in town to promote this quiet almost-masterpiece. Yet, the work began to win fans, due to its superior rendering of a wide range of new and old classics from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan to the late Elliott Smith.
After receiving only a quick summary review, the album snuck into Lorraine Ali's 10 best albums of 2004 list in Newsweek. In late December, Entertainment Weekly's music critics published a list of important albums they missed reviewing, giving it an A-. In January, Greg Kot, the critic who last year published a revealing book about indie heroes Wilco, used the album to lead an article in the Chicago Tribune about quality popular music for adult sensibilities. Soon enough, U.S. News & World Report was complaining that this important album had been overlooked by the Grammys.
And, with all this, the darn thing began to really sell.
Almost five months after its release, the album climbed to number two on Billboard's Top Jazz Album List and number three on its Heatseekers list. Next thing, the singer was doing live performances on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson and the important Morning Becomes Eclectic show with Nic Harcourt at KCRW in Santa Monica.
No less than a happy ending is exactly what Madeleine Peyroux's Careless Love (Rounder Records) deserves. Listening to it, one hears, easily and without any great interpretive consternation, a lost world of adult popular culture, a music for people who drink martinis without irony and without fruity, overpriced variation. As several critics have noticed, this very "adultness" is what was so admired about Norah Jones's first album, a commercial colossus that seemed to herald everything from the return of middlebrow music to a newfound, popular appreciation of beauty. But if anything, Madeleine Peyroux's album is even more exquisite, weighted with the sadness of living and a frame of vocal reference that makes her more kin to Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf than any young pop sensation.
Most comfortable working in the dark, Peyroux opens with a version of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" that trades away none of the original's desperate poetry, even as it delivers an improved musicality in its muted jazz and Peyroux's delicate melodies. And with conviction: Dance me to the children who are asking to be born / Dance me though the curtains that our kisses have outworn / Raise a tent of shelter now though every thread is torn. Not many are the young (or old) singers who can pull that off.
In another important track, Peyroux gives voice to Elliott Smith's waltzing "Between the Bars." Smith, a folk singer who committed suicide in October 2003, is perhaps most famous for the single "Miss Misery," which earned him an Oscar nomination when it appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. If there were an award, however, for heartbreaking puns, Smith would have been a repeat champion. Just as "Miss Misery" described a character and also a state of longing, "between the bars" dwells on the walk from one drinking spot to another as well as the varying forms of imprisonment between love and drink.
That the same singer might do justice to both of the above is perhaps not surprising. Yet, Peyroux can walk the sunny side of the street, too. Her first and only other album, the 1996 Dreamland, boasts transcendent versions "Walkin' After Midnight" and "(Getting Some) Fun Out of Life." More appropriate to Careless Love's dolorous mood, the pick-me-ups are few and qualified, like "Don't Cry, Baby," which, along with several other tracks, revels in a fuzzy depth of tone one hasn't heard since listening to Billie Holiday on vinyl.
Speaking of the Great Sad One: It is worth pondering the relative merit of a contemporary singer whose style, at least on this album with its bittersweet phrasing and constant note-bending, can sound at times like a kind of ventriloquism. An associated problem is the distraction it creates, as one listens and asks questions like, Would Billie Holiday, if she were a young singer today, make blues of Elliott Smith? Certainly that a person sings like Billie Holiday cannot be held against them. Then again, it can and has to be, if the standard is greatness.
Still, Careless Love evinces so many qualities, among them an incredibly willful carefulness in its choice of material and a heartfelt devotion to every line of music. A profound insistence is at work here, that nothing be wasted or muddled through, and this hard-earned seriousness makes for exceptional artistry and often sublime listening.
But let it not be eight years until Madeleine Peyroux's next and third album.
Correction appended, 2/25/05: The article originally stated that Madeleine Peyroux appeared on David Letterman's show; she appeared on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.