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Giving a rave review to a Shirley Bassey album in 2020 demands an explanation.
After all, what a year this has been for studio albums!
With live music years away from post-pandemic normal and audiences homebound and down, online streaming services have been blazing with new releases all year.
It’s a curious thing, amidst the diverse and incredible work available, to find an album by an 83-year-old Welsh diva this year’s game changer.
Dame Shirley Bassey, like Cher, has said numerous farewells to showbiz.
Her 2009 release, The Performance (an album of originals written for her by Rufus Wainwright, Gary Barlow, the Pet Shop Boys and Manic Street Preachers) looked like the end.
And what better way to end a glittering career than at a high-water mark?
An album followed her crowd-pleasing performance of “Goldfinger” at the Oscars in 2013, but while Hello Like Before was a guaranteed win for the Bassey fanbase, it was nothing new.
Bassey is an old school pop diva, a vamp and a balladeer with a big, brassy voice.
Her formula for success has delivered hits in all seven decades of her career, but it’s also given her a reputation as a “Johnny One Note” performer.
While new generations have appreciated her vast discography well into the 21st century, if you’re a Bassey fan, you’re still part of a shrinking, niche market.
Her latest album, I Owe it All to You, strikes all the old Bassey notes and hit number 5 on the UK charts upon release.
What makes it remarkable is 83-year-old Bassey still can deliver her trademark power and charisma at an age when most other performers have lost the talent, the vision, or the commercial capacity.
The track list demands attention; upon first glance, it almost demands anxiety.
Opening track, Queen’s iconic showstopper “Who Wants to Live Forever” is a big sing in anyone’s book and it had to be wondered if Bassey still had it in her.
Bassey sings the lyrics with the emotional understanding of her age and with an attention to vocal technique adding a texture to this song no one could have seen coming.
But then no one of her age has ever had the vocal confidence to include that track on a major release.
The voice is working harder than it had to 25 years ago, but the song is richer for it and Bassey hits every high note and holds ever belt with absolute assurance.
She knocks it out of the park.
Truthfully, it is more of the same from Shirley Bassey, but the accomplishment of her artistic longevity is now unprecedented in modern pop music.
Bassey sings powerfully, comfortably, attractively about love, life, death, sex and sex appeal.
There’s something reassuringly adult about Bassey’s sexual confidence.
She vamps and purrs exquisitely but there’s no sign of youth culture here.
It’s a formidable artistic achievement in an age where older artists usually either soften their sexual language or pander to contemporary stylings that risk making them ridiculous.
It’s an inspired piece of symbolism, from one woman of colour and one generation to another.
Less a passing of the torch than the mutual understanding of the power of BIPOC artistry in modern culture.
Bassey has said this album reflects 70 years in showbiz with songs handpicked to reflect her life and achievements.
This release has been marketed as Shirley Bassey’s final farewell.
The album itself proves it needn’t be.
Bassey still has the vocal talent, the vitality in performance and the artistic vision to carry on if she chose.
Having sold 135 million records across seven decades, she’s still the UK’s best-selling female artist (only Adele has ever come close to challenging her).
I Owe it All to You will not rate a significant mention in global album sales figures when 2020 is considered.
But its artistic ambition is ground-breaking.
Shirley Bassey is the living proof, in 2020 the stage life of a pop artist and the impact of their art really can be self-determined.
We are lucky to have her.