“A love letter to my Canadian heritage,” K.D. Lang called Hymns of the 49th Parallel at Carnegie Hall in June. But it’s a love letter sent from Southern California, where Lang lives, along with the composers—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen—of more than half the CD’s songs. Are these and the still-north-of-the-border writers she covers—Ron Sexsmith, Jane Siberry, Bruce Cockburn—distinctively Canadian? They are now.
As she has before, Lang makes acting normal an interesting achievement on this record. Who else could have switched from country to adult contemporary as if it was a clever stratagem? How often can you call a pop singer fronting a full orchestra, as she did at Carnegie Hall, self-discovery rather than self-importance? But this time around what she discovers inside herself isn’t a reinvigorated genre. It’s a whole new nation.
Lang doesn’t evoke Canada’s coasts or cities. She’s found a Great Plains of deep feelings, a heartland of nature somewhere inside her native Alberta that extends at least to Young’s “town in north Ontario.” And while she smooths it all together with her massive voice and MOR production, she’s collected such a quirky crew of songwriters that their often peculiar turns of phrase, verbal and melodic, throw some tension into her dramatic/mellow Celine Dion–meets–Anne Murray voice.
What makes this work, beyond Lang’s ability to control both prickly and inspiring material, is her sensuality. Alongside acknowledged influences like Patsy Cline and Peggy Lee, Karen Carpenter peeks out on some cuts—a Karen who’s in touch with her libido. Finally, this is a love letter because love is its subject. Rather than recalling a lost past from exile, the album celebrates a currently accessible imperative to generosity—including, by implication, Canada’s matter-of-fact legalization of gay marriage and participation in France and Germany’s coalition of the unwilling. Singing from a Great Canadian Adult Contemporary Country Songbook of her own invention, she conjures up a monumental Canada that elevates interesting but peculiar titles like Siberry’s “Love Is Everything” into a new canon. Her trademark wink and nod and whimsy are missing and missed. But their absence is just another of Lang’s apparent detours that’s actually a discovery. What she wants to show us this time is a very big Canada that calls us to be more generous with our love.