Learning to Fly 

New album by singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler wrests beauty from loss

New album by singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler wrests beauty from loss

Cheryl Wheeler

Defying Gravity (Rounder)

The opening song on Cheryl Wheeler's new album shares a title with the Kelly Clarkson single that's dominated pop radio for the past two months. Both convincingly portray women dealing with a moment of transition, but what's important is how they differ.

Clarkson's song, with its post-Prince spelling of "Since U Been Gone," adopts the slow-verse/full-throttle chorus dynamics currently in vogue. As predictable as the sound may be, the former American Idol champ makes the spitfire track work, inhabiting lines about a young woman who spitefully boasts to her faithless ex-beau how happy she is to move on.

In Wheeler's "Since You've Been Gone," the protagonist doesn't take separation and loss so easily. The song begins with a middle-aged woman cursing herself for crying, wondering why she's still as insecure and fragile as she was in her teens. As aware as she is, she can't stop the numbing emotional pain; it's as if she's watching herself fall apart in slow motion yet is helpless to stop it. "Not to complain," she sings with honeyed melancholy, "we're just bereft, not deserted."

And there's the rub. One song finds a young woman kissing off an affair with a snarl, proud of her ability to let go. The other describes an older woman mourning the departure of a lifelong love, unsure how she'll get along yet disappointed with her weakness.

Even 20 years ago, as Wheeler's popularity began to spread beyond New England, she mastered the art of writing lyrics from the point of view of women who think too much. Today, her songs are stunning in their empathy for those who struggle with themselves, with loss and with loneliness.

More complex musically than most singer-songwriters, Wheeler long ago moved beyond the simple acoustic settings of her '80s albums, employing liquid tones of electric guitars and keyboards and percolating percussion to create a gentle, layered adult-pop sound. Her richly expressive voice breaks through fine; even though she keeps her tone modulated and conversational, she's also capable of immense power and acquits herself nicely on speedy romps.

Yet as with her past work, what makes Wheeler's new Defying Gravity remarkable is how shamelessly and poetically she displays her sensitive heart. When bidding farewell to a lover in "This Is Me," her attitude is the opposite of that of Clarkson's kiss-off. Wheeler tenderly acknowledges the stormy instability that keeps her ex's life in turmoil, and she assures the person that her love remains. She also holds out hope that her former lover will find peace someday.

Wheeler's insights also illuminate in "Beyond the Lights," a prayerful note to a friend who's committed suicide. "Alice" is a tribute to an acquaintance who, after her husband's death, spends her years traveling and working in places she's always wanted to visit, be it the Great Lakes, Alaska or a Texas dancehall town.

Wheeler's comic side is a highlight of her live shows, and on recent albums she's featured it more prominently. Yet unlike most funny tunesmiths, Wheeler blends her wit into her arrangements, as on the new "On the Phone," a caustic blast at those, including herself, who use classical-music ring tones—with each stanza set to a different old-world standard. Another hilarious diatribe tackles the pitfalls of airplane travel.

Not everything on the record works as well. The album's title comes from its cover of a Jesse Winchester tune, but the island percussion mars the song's waltz-time melody. "Little Town" draws on the folk-song cliché of contrasting nature's beauty with life's harshness.

The most memorable song on Wheeler's new album is the closer, "Blessed," a fairy-tale look back at a blissful childhood written after her father's death. But maybe even that's typical of Wheeler: her most joyous, most beautiful song was inspired by the death of someone dear.

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