Dawn Harden – A Lifetime (2011)

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There is this deeply personal texture to A Lifetime, a redemptive 10-track journey through love’s rocky terrain. French jazz-pop singer-songwriter Dawn Harden wrote or co-wrote, with pianist Patrick Pernet, all but one of the songs, giving the record a lasting resonance.

She starts with “Traces,” a lovelorn tale of a lost passion presented in a trembling, almost confidential way. It’s like Harden is whispering these memories, each more difficult to enunciate than the last, into your ear. Singing over a guitar-driven music bed, she seems at first to be building into a moment of strength, only there’s a deeper muscle memory to this pain: “Maybe love is waiting right outside my door,” Harden sings, “but I just can’t bring myself to believe in love no more.”

A sense of devastating heartbreak runs through the initial moments of A Lifetime, giving the record a complexity and depth, that continues even into the lone cover tune, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a French-language ballad which translates roughly as “Don’t Leave Me.” Written by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel in 1959, it is perhaps best known in America for its English-language adaptation by Rod McKuen, called “If You Go Away.” Harden’s memorably oaken delivery, with each word sung like an accusation or else a plea, conveys a clear message in any language.

Not that A Lifetime wallows in a painful reverie. In fact, slowly but surely, Harden wills herself onward. By the time she approaches the title track, which opens with a lithe rhythm, Harden seems to have accepted the difficulties of romantic entanglement. She is, finally, ready to take that chance. Guitarist Olivier Tshimanga entwines beautifully with Pernet’s piano, conceptualizing the swirling passions associated with such difficult equations. When Harden falls into a French cadence, background singer Melvin Clairault echoes and then deepens the emotional resonance of her leap into the great unknown.

“Seeing Is Believing” dashes out with a swirling guitar signature by Tshimanga and a more overtly jazz-inspired turn by Pernet. Together, they create a musical milieu that recalls the polished syncopations of Steely Dan, and it’s the perfect setting as Harden approximates the silky sensuality of Sade. “Until You Came Along,” a Tracy Chapman-ish tune with a touching image of a broken bird attempting to fly again, goes deeper into the album’s emerging theme of love’s emancipative quality. Pernet, this time at the computer, adds a rhythmic programming that gives the tune a pleasant island feel.

Later, on an even more mechanized, mid-tempo number called “Your Own Way,” something almost in the style of Seal, Harden answers whatever lingering questions remain with a broader sense of how this world works: “There are so many dreams,” she sings. “Some live and others die.” That occasionally leads Harden into some choppy waters. Her sense of interior storytelling is far superior to the more sweeping themes she tries out toward the end of A Lifetime. Luckily, she’s got the singing talent to pull most anything off.

“Enough Love,” a one-world song that focuses on embracing our similarities, might have seemed more like easy speechifying in the hands of a singer of lesser gifts. Harden employs a smoky intensity that recalls Anita Baker, going so far inside the lyric that any argument to the contrary seems pointless. “Are you looking in your heart?” she implores. “We’re gonna make a new start, with enough love.” She then adds a vocal arrangement that turns the concluding segment into a symphony of positive thinking.

The devastating “Will You Be There,” which begins with a wayward lover fumbling with his keys after a night away from home, elevates into a crunchy, Lenny Kravitz-esque bridge as Harden makes a final play to save the relationship: “I am willing to go through the depths for you,” she sings, “if you just turn around and tell me what it is I have to do.” “Falling,” with its almost mathematically upbeat rhythms, is the sound of someone who completely understands her own weaknesses, and is moving past them.

By the time Harden gets to the closer, “An Undefeated Heart,” she has begun to overcome the pain of concurrent, outward heartbreaks, too. Dedicated to Daniel Pearl, an American journalist who was kidnapped and killed by Al-Qaeda in 2002, the song underscores just how far Harden has come. When, with a touching finality, she sings about their hearts being “undefeated, forever undefeated,” the journey away from the victim Harden once seemed to be is now finally complete.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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