Bic Runga: Beautiful Collision

NZ Listener

BEAUTIFUL COLLISION, Bic Runga (Columbia)  

“Here and there and everywhere and back to Union Square/when will I get some sleep?” laments Bic Runga in what is paradoxically the most upbeat cut on her new album. And as an ironic afterthought she adds, “I believe I might be having fun”.

If Bic is feeling the pressure it’s hardly surprising. The phenomenal local success of her 1997 debut Drive raised high expectations of this follow-up, which by her own admission took three years, twelve engineers and eight studios in five different cities to make.

And you can feel the hours of work that went into Beautiful Collision, starting with the sophisticated restraint of Runga’s self-production. The arrangements are quietly colourful, with unexpected banjos, clarinets and harmonicas augmenting the more traditional guitars and keyboards. But it is her voice, close-miked and every breath audible, that beckons you into the sound, setting a mood of intimacy and confession.

And yet if the new tunes tug every bit as hard on the heartstrings as those on Drive, there’s a very different tone to the confessions. Where Drive matched a prodigious gift for melody to lyrics that mined the often-melancholic inner life of a post-teen, Beautiful Collision sets out to show us that the songwriter has grown up and got happy. “Come around for tea/dance me round and round the kitchen…” goes the invitation of “Election Night”. Amidst all the music-biz madness Runga appears to have made a nest, which she returns to again and again in songs such as this one, “When I See You Smile”, “Something Good”, and the title track.

And yet Bic doesn’t really seem sure how much she wants to share her inner sanctum with an audience. That’s clear right from the opening track, a serenade to her lover that captures their delicate bliss while simultaneously letting us know that these private feelings are not really any of our business. And for much of its forty minutes the album maintains this sense of glimpsing a private world into which we are not really invited. If she’s wary of exposing her emotions again as openly as she did at twenty, it’s understandable.

On the other hand, what else is she going to sing about? Certainly not the pressures of being a professional pop star; that subject is quickly burnt-out in the self-mocking stanzas of “Get Some Sleep”.

But if this is a dilemma which Beautiful Collision fails to resolve, there’s still much here to enjoy, particularly in the richness of Runga’s melodies. One can hear echoes of everyone from Bjork (“Precious Things”) to the Beatles (“Get Some Sleep”). And in the languid slow waltz of “The Be All and End All” you can tell that she’s had one ear cocked to some cranky old-timey country music.

The biggest influences seem to come from closer to home. Dave Dobbyn and Neil Finn both contribute as sidemen, Dobbyn’s guitar jangling gorgeously through “Sleep”, Finn harmonising and/or playing keyboards on several of the ballads. And their presence is even more palpable in the songs themselves. Without denying her innate gifts, one senses there has been some mentoring going on, consciously or otherwise. You can imagine Runga at a compositional crossroads asking herself: “How would Dave or Neil have done this?”

But there are other lessons she could learn from Dobbyn and Finn. Neither peaked with his second album and I don’t believe Bic has either. Each has weathered the whims of the music industry and continued to access his imagination to build a catalogue that grows more curious and entertaining every year. Though they may have laboured lovingly over each of their now-numerous records, in the end it is the sheer bulk of good songs that counts.

At this point, Beautiful Collision seems a little shy and awkward, standing on its own. But these songs should ultimately find their home amongst the bulk of fine Bic Runga albums to come.

Tags: new zealandneil finnbic rungadave dobbyn

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