“Why would I spend the rest of my days unhappy?” Mary J. Blige wonders on “Therapy,” the opening track of her 12th album, The London Sessions. It’s a question she posits half to herself — but the defiantly snappy song also feels a little like it’s addressed to the fans and critics who have ascribed the patchiness of Blige’s work over the past decade to her personal contentment.
Blige has a point: The myth of the tortured artist is a cliché, one too often applied to women who found success by singing their pain, and in any case her work — at her peak, since her peak and on this album — is more nuanced than a simple pain/joy binary. But her artistic rut was real. Since her last truly great album, 2005′s The Breakthrough, Blige’s discography hasn’t been disastrous, but it has been directionless. The unwieldy title of 2011′s My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) — part hanging on to past glories, part attempt to corral an incoherent hodgepodge of songs into a meaningless non-theme — seemed to sum up the predicament of a soul legend who had become too mindful of the modern music industry’s unfriendliness to middle-aged women (particularly those singing R&B).
On paper, The London Sessions is the perfect solution: It shows Blige shaking herself out of her comfort zone and sending herself to London to get a piece of its resurgent house scene. The big-room club remix of R&B singles — think the Freemasons’ monolithic take on Beyoncé‘s “Ring the Alarm” or the epic space battle that is Quentin Harris’s remix of Jennifer Hudson‘s “Spotlight” — has long been a personal interest of mine. The prospect of Blige channeling this aesthetic — and, further back, the likes of classic house divas such as Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown — to sing her happiness is a tantalizing one.
The London Sessions is not quite the album that this prerelease narrative suggested. An entire third passes before anything resembling a house beat appears; midway through, the irony seems to be that the only collaborator who read the brief properly was veteran U.S. R&B producer Rodney Jerkins: His “My Loving” has Blige essaying a kind of sequel to Robin S’s “Show Me Love,” declaiming over irresistible house piano. It’s here that the album takes off. The warm chords and delicate strings of “Nobody But You,” courtesy of garage pioneer MJ Cole, are a perfect bed for Blige to luxuriate in longing. Best of all is “Pick Me Up,” which soars and flutters as Blige spreads her wings and escapes her pain and those who would keep her there. “Misery loves company, they won’t let us grow,” she sings; a couple of bars later, in the most spontaneously joyful moment on The London Sessions, she exclaims out of nowhere: “Shamone!”
The price The London Sessions pays for its curious structure is that it winds up dissatisfying in many respects. One of the reasons it falters is that Blige’s collaborators aren’t really as cutting-edge as either she or they believe. British artists tend to be received in the U.S. with either total indifference or an odd, semi-baffled fascination for their perceived maverick style. But mainstream British pop has a tendency to default to the conservative Saturday-evening light-entertainment aesthetic — exemplified by tedious bores and dirge-purveyors Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith, both inevitably present here. It’s no surprise that ballads such as “Doubt” and “Not Loving You” are over-orchestrated schmaltz more suited to X Factor auditions.
Disclosure, meanwhile, might seem like a refreshing antidote to EDM to American ears, but to anyone who heard U.K. garage the first time around, a plasticky revivalist air hangs over them. Blige, in fact, should be a perfect collaborator for a duo in need of some soul — and on her remix of their “F for You” single last year, she was. Their contributions here are, in comparison, all too careful. Even worse is the decision to include spoken interludes from the duo — and, later, Blige herself — about the project, like bad expository scenes in a film. At first they’re just cringe-worthy, but by the end they’re anger-inducing and self-aggrandizing. We don’t need to be told Mary J. Blige is a legend, and we certainly don’t need to hear a couple of British kids discuss how similar they are to her — or patronize her by telling us, “She didn’t need to do this.”
There was the potential for true greatness here, but only flashes of it come to fruition in an album hamstrung by its own self-awareness. Oddly, it’s one of the ballads here that illustrates why The London Sessions is ultimately the first positive step in Blige’s career in a decade. On “Whole Damn Year,” the detail shines in the deceptively simple songwriting: Each line, carefully enunciated, contains waves of trauma, both mental and physical. Blige reveals, layer by layer, both the pain in her past and its effects on her present. Her voice and words are front and center, as they are throughout: It’s been a while since Blige herself was given so much space on her own records, instead of playing second fiddle to the radio trend du jour, and since anyone involved in producing a Blige album took so much care to make it a focused, coherent work. It would be a mistake to argue that Blige has been rejuvenated by a young, hip cohort of artists; she’s rejuvenated herself, often despite them.