Ute Lemper – Passionate Fight
Back at the turn of the century when I was working in the Virgin Megastore on Buchanan Street in Glasgow – a magnificent shop with three floors dedicated solely to entertainment, now sadly vacant – I would occasionally be called upon to cover the Classical counter. Leaving the safe haven of my beloved Rock and Pop department was always a bit traumatic, and I would hover nervously, hoping that nobody would ask me anything too complicated, as composers were always slightly tricky to find on ELVIS (EpOS Linked Virgin Information System, fact fans). My main challenge was to try and find something faintly hummable to listen to in order to pass the time, before fleeing back downstairs to arrange Bananarama albums in chronological order.
One day I noticed Punishing Kiss by Ute Lemper among the new releases, and something about it – possibly the title, more likely the rubber catsuit on the back cover – told me I was in the presence of a theatrical German dominatrix. The front cover mentioned some quite good pop stars, and it was on Decca Records and was therefore entirely defensible should I be challenged. What followed was one of those brilliant moments where you realise someone has gone to the trouble of making an entire album specifically for you. Goosebumps rise, chills dance down your spine, joy tingles in your special places and, because you work in the shop, you get to take it home at a nice discount.
The shortest route to my heart is always via a good string section, and the Nick Cave-penned Little Water Song begins proceedings with one of the most beautiful and tension-filled ones I’ve ever heard – anyone who’s longed for a sequel to Where the Wild Roses Grow will find much to love in this devastating murder ballad. Ute delivers the lyrics in such a way that you almost find yourself holding your breath; she’s oddly calm at first, then thrashing about in attempt to survive, finally fading away – although glowing with hate – in quiet acceptance as her life runs out. The next track, the exquisitely sharp and brutal The Case Continues ups the drama levels even further, and you begin to realise that this isn’t going to be standard confessional pop – if anything it’s pop as evidence, and Ute Lemper is the star witness. What a completely amazing idea. Of course in the wrong hands i.e.) Lisa Scott Lee, this would be an unmitigated disaster, but in Ute’s it’s a wonderful circus of depravity, recriminations and dangerous emotions. Hooray!
The track that veers most closely towards conventional pop, and the one which keeps bringing me back to this album fifteen years on is Passionate Fight, an Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve-penned tale of fiery lovers having a right old set-to amidst the wafting odours of “camphor and cigarettes”.
What I especially love much about this Passionate Fight is that its lyrical high dramatics are balanced perfectly by a simply gorgeous, languid, dog-days-of-summer-ish production arranged by Joby Talbot, whose Divine Comedy bandmates provide most of the album’s backing tracks (Neil Hannon himself crops up on the Brecht/Weill number Tango Ballad and proves to be a most able sparring partner). Ute herself comes across like some grand old dame in a seedy Berlin hotel bar regaling anyone who’ll listen with saucy tales of sexy wrongdoing in exchange for a drink. It’s the kind of thing you could easily turn into a lavish BBC costume drama to enliven dark winter Sunday evenings.
Pretty much the whole of the album is this good – apart from the Scott Walker track at the end which is, like everything since Tilt (other than that song he did for Quantum of Solace) completely impenetrable. In Ute Lemper I found one of my all time favourite voices and some of my all time favourite songs – and all because I covered someone’s tea-break. So if you like the chamber pop of Liza Minnelli‘s Results album but want to swap the Great White Way sincerity for something a little more off-Broadway (in fact, down a dark alleyway considerably off-Broadway), then I urge you take up the case of the Punishing Kiss.
The defence rests.
Entered chart: did not chart, although the album made no.104.
Who could sing this today and have a hit? This is screaming “SIA! SIA! SIA!” at me.
The thing about Ute temper is she doesn’t care what any of us think – she runs her own time line back to pre 2nd World war Germany and combines all the elements of then – Dada – anarchy – slum scum and decadence. If she wants to she’ll stop singing with her voice and become a trumpet or an angry bee in most/any european language. Scat (ological) – beat poet – white trash – Ella or Bessie Smith – Weil and wild – amazing and a mostly hidden treasure.