I’ve waited quite a while for this album. Lori Lieberman’s last album, Gun Metal Sky, came out three years ago, and it was a marvel of subtle beauty. Bend Like Steel was worth the wait. This is a personal album, and the beautifully rendered musical settings here are even more intimate than last time. The basic band has Lieberman switching off between acoustic guitar and piano, plus additional acoustic, stand-up bass, and percussion. There are also cello parts on many of the songs, and an electric guitar is sometimes added with the lightest of touches. It would be a mistake to add much to this. Lieberman is a passionate singer here, but she does not raise her voice much. She often gets quieter for emotional effect where most singers would get louder. So it is remarkable how well her voice and Monty Byrom’s baritone combine on the album’s one duet number, Mr and Mrs Make-Believe. Byrom must match Lieberman’s subtlety with his own, and too few singers know how to do that.
The big surprise to me about Bend Like Steel was the content of the lyrics. Lieberman has been making music for almost 40 years, and I haven’t heard nearly all of it. But this album feels like Lieberman had some kind of a breakthrough, and years of pent up emotion came out in the writing of these songs. Lieberman says in the liner notes, “A writing streak led to the making of this CD… where the more I said, the more I felt I needed to say.” The album opens with songs of love gone wrong. If Not Now feels like a snapshot of a moment when a woman who has been isolated in an abusive relationship decides to break out. Mr and Mrs Make-Believe depicts a hollow marriage, where their acquaintances believe they are the perfect couple, but their relationship is actually loveless. Cup of Girl is one of the most heartfelt songs on an album full of them; it depicts a singer who has been manipulated, but has finally decided to take control. The song uses an extended metaphor of a recipe, and this is a device that could have failed miserably, but Lieberman nails it. As the album progresses, the emotional tone begins to shift. Now, the narrator who had been so unlucky in love begins to find the real thing. My Sister’s Boyfriend is a flashback that represents a long-sought ideal for what love should be. The relationship in the song did not endure, and there is a heart-stopping moment in the song that explains why not with one word. I don’t want to give a spoiler by saying more, but you will know the moment I mean when you hear it. That one moment sums up everything that is so right about this album. These Things is a wonderfully ironic song; after recounting all of the experiences that could have warned her off of love forever elsewhere on this album, Lieberman finds herself in this song assuring a new lover that he does not have to let his past hurts scare him away from her. And that sums up what Lieberman has taken away from all of these experiences, and what she wants the listener to take away from this album. Through it all, Lieberman never lost her faith in true love, and so, she was ready when it found her at last. Netherlands finds her in that country for the first time since 1975, and it completes a circle for her. And There’s a Harbor closes the album with an affirmation of the power of love. Lieberman didn’t write this one, but she chose the perfect song to conclude this journey.
And it is a journey. Much care has obviously gone into sequencing the songs on Bend Like Steel. This is an album that should be heard straight through in one sitting if possible. Heard this way, the album tells a story that is real, but also heartwarming in the end.
Lori Lieberman: Cup of Girl
Lori Lieberman: My Sister‘s Boyfriend