Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra each had a moment late in their careers when, facing middle age, they turned a single song into a transcendent statement of what their lives had meant. Holiday elevated a torch song, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” into a tragic prayer. Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” summarized a mode of erotic nostalgia.
Nina Simone’s first album in four years contains such a moment in Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change,” a song previously recorded by George Benson and Judy Collins, but which Simone makes her own in a semioperatic version that risks everything to succeed. Phrasing in spontaneous outbursts that vary in style from blunt speech-song to jazz-gospel melisma, the singer runs the emotional gamut from fear, sorrow and tenderness to a final exhilarating hiss of challenge. Set against a wash of strings and a tentative piano figure that retards the momentum, Simone’s oracular baritone transforms “Everything Must Change” from a wistful philosophic morsel into a tough, anguished proclamation of survival and artistic independence. It is a moment to remember.
Except for an indifferent version of Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” the new LP resounds with further tremors of self-renewal. The blinding anger that infused Simone’s more recent records has attenuated into an eloquent moodiness. Indeed, the bulk of Baltimore‘s material stresses love, reconciliation and the passage of time, and includes the definitive version of Judy Collins’ haunting “My Father.” While Creed Taylor’s lush pop-R&B production provides adequate, if somewhat soupy background, the force of Nina Simone’s personality has always been sufficient to render most producers irrelevant. Baltimore is a stunning comeback by one of the very greatest.