Review Summary: You say "don't be blue", is that the best you can do?
It's understandable that a pop gem like Natalie Imbruglia's Left of the Middle
should be relegated to the footnotes of pop history. Found in bargain bins across the country (I got mine for an unbelievable 50¢), never talked about in public, and widely ignored by virtually every audiophile in the world today, this album actually has some decent music on it. Nobody remembers that it reached the Top 10 in both the US and UK (#1 in Imbruglia's native Australia), garnered three Grammy nominations, and is certified 2x Platinum in the US.
On the other hand, everybody remembers "Torn", her '97/98 cover of an obscure alt rock band's single that achieved worldwide critical and commercial success and secured her status as a one-hit wonder, arguably. Improving on the original, Imbruglia employs very clean, soft acoustic guitars, a gentle dancey beat played out on a drum machine, vintage 90s selfsung "oooh"s and "aaah"s as backing vocals, and sleek production that enhances the package. It's the perfect pop song, and one of the most iconic songs of the decade.
The rest of the album is just as slick, incorporating wild flanging guitars tamed into submission, funky basslines that fit the dress code, and a good many rock and jazz(!) instruments brilliantly thrown into the mix. You get a feeling that the session musicians were jamming just prior to playing on this album, as their contributions sound enthusiastic and enjoyable. Most of the songs grasp at their respective influences so desperately that, had the producers let them, they could have been the alt rock or trip-hop(!) anthems that they approximate. "One More Addiction", for example, if left to its own devices could have been a raging warm sunny-day type of song akin to those of Oasis. "Leave Me Alone", with waves of saxophones lending emotional support to a deep bass, smooth beat, and divine vocals with little flourishes of vibraphone, makes for one rhythmic chillout track that could easily have fit on Sneaker Pimps' Becoming X
released one year previously, or even (in a previous life) in the middle of a Duke Ellington suite. "Impressed" has the grooviness and guitar noise and special effects of an upbeat polished Garbage dance-rocker. And the title track, a slow ballad with twangy acoustic guitar and very soft synth pads, could have made its home on a country-pop album by Sheryl Crow or, a decade later but more apropos, Taylor Swift.
In fact, if you dig the classic 90s period sound, the only real weakness on this album is Natalie herself. For while the songs are well-crafted and catchy and the lyrics not bad, her vocals aren't always up to snuff. Her timbre on certain songs ("One More Addiction", "Big Mistake", "Wishing I Was There", "Don't You Think"", "Intuition", and "City") is reminiscent of Alanis Morissette without the bite, and in all the comparisons made above she seems to fall flat. Rather than carrying the tune, the tune carries her, and with an album striving so hard to rock, poor Natalie's voice just lacks the power to project with any degree of intensity.
This album is pretty good. Sonically, lyrically, and emotively, it's as solid an album as you'd expect given the knowledge that it sold over seven million copies worldwide and won so many accolades in its day. And if you're looking for good bang for your buck, these days it's a steal. But in spite of its easy listen-ability (again, see highlights "Torn" and "Leave Me Alone"), it neither inspires nor riles you up. It's good sustenance with great presentation, but it lacks the seasoning to entice beyond its face value.