Once a teenage idol waving bobby -soxers – he was named in 1955 Lolita As one of the favorite singers of the title character Tony Bennett is now the great old man of the American Songbook, one of the last links with pop before Elvis. At 95, remarkably, he still has a debonair way with a tune.
Love for sale is his 61st studio album. It combines him with a singer Lady Gaga, 60 years younger – an unlikely foil with which he made an album with jazz duets in 2014, Cheek to cheek. Despite criticism, the strange combination of dance-pop provocateur and antique crooner worked like a charm. She got a belt, he shrugged. Their tone was gentle, but unironic, a lively fusion of stars from different generations.
Their new duets are songs by Cole Porter. Musical background comes from a small jazz ensemble, an orchestra and a large orchestra. The orchestral arrangements were done by Bennett’s longtime collaborator, Jorge Calandrelli, and the large orchestral arrangements by the celebrated New York orchestra Marion Evans, an even longer collaborator. Like Bennett, he’s 95.
The album begins with a blowing trumpet fanfare, like curtain in a vintage Manhattan nightclub. The spotlight falls on Gaga and sings the first verses of ‘It’s De-Lovely’ in a slow, full voice. The pace increases when her non-native soft shoe pops into the eye. “The night is young,” are her evergreen first words.
At the microphone, the years fall away. Bennett has the quality that Bing Crosby once attributed to ‘phonogies’, a singer suitable for recording technology. He includes his melodies like a stylus on a record, hoarse than in his heyday, but with deftly worked shifts in gear. Meanwhile, Gaga plays her role to perfection, a singer with an arm-wielding being with a keen sense of drama, but also self-discipline to know when to use it. Her exuberance conveys warmth and generosity, not competition around the spotlight.
Musically, the songs are based on the orchestral jazz of the forties and fifties. ‘Just one of those things’ is a quick swing number. ‘Night and Day’ begins with the throbbing sound of a drum fight before going into a romantic fantasy. ‘Love for Sale’ turns the script into a sloppy world of sex work, with Bennett chanting ‘Young love for sale’, while Gaga vibrates in the role of streetwalker: ‘Who will buy?’ The song brings a solid help from the old school Broadway in this grim scenario, a sophisticated cartoon of the seamless side of city life.
Love for sale‘s title hints at the fame that singers like Bennett have had before. When Lolita listens to his recordings, coroners are vilified as predators, while seizing the supposedly easily manipulated feelings of their youthful listeners. But the album wipes out such insults. It emphasizes the ingenuity, skill, feeling and musicality invested in the best pop songs – an observation that is just as true in the modern era of Gaga as in Bennett’s almost vanished song.
After revealing earlier this year that he has Alzheimer’s disease, he says the album will be his last. Covered and tailed with trumpet fanfares, a circular shape, like the twist of a vinyl disc, the Cole Porter covers go beyond pastiche or memorial. They take us to the acoustic wonderland of studio recordings, a kingdom of pop music where time is mastered and voices sound with a color that will not disappear.
‘Love for Sale’ is released by Columbia / Interscope