“Study yourself. You should be your only competition.” This is the advice Barbra Streisand gives to aspiring singers. The 79-year-old superstar credits her meticulous self-scrutiny for a career during which she has become the only artist to achieve No 1 albums in six consecutive decades, and the first woman and youngest person to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar. As a Jewish woman rising from a poor, fatherless Brooklyn childhood, she has shattered a series of glass ceilings without ever being afraid to look back, constantly questioning and polishing her past. During lockdown she wrote a memoir (due soon) while going through her vaults, unearthing this eclectic new mix of songs (recorded between 1969-2020) and painstakingly remixing them.
The result is a sumptuous and soothing affair. Release Me 2 contains all the smarts and schmaltz of Babs at her best. It whisks the listener from big swooning, orchestrally upholstered ballads such as “Sweet Forgiveness” (produced by Streisand and Walter Afanasieff and recorded in 1994) to the goofy charm of “Rainbow Connection”, her 1974 duet with Kermit the Frog. She’s a country-lounge sweetheart on a duet with Willie Nelson called “I’d Want it To Be You”. You can’t help but smile at the cheesily scripted banter of, “You’ll always be that Funny Girl to me”... “Aww, thanks Willie… Can we take a ride on your bus?” And she’s a jaunty darlin’ as Barry Gibb “ba-bom-ba-boms” along on a 2005 take of “If Only You Were Mine”.
But there’s no denying that even on the dopiest of lines, Streisand’s voice is one of the most ridiculously luxurious instruments on the planet. A five-star penthouse suite of a voice: plush and spacious, with a solid-gold commitment to the lyrics and a sunken marble bathtub of soft-soapy soul in which to wallow. She’s a singer whose lips you can almost feel stretch and tremble as they seek out then kiss the shape of each note. Her passion soars over the rumbling timpani of “Once You’ve Been in Love” – flutes flutter around her as she throws her whole, youthful heart into a 1963 recording of “Right as the Rain” from Bloomer Girl, the 1944 musical comedy that first opened on Broadway as the Second World War raged abroad. A long-time Democrat, whose last album saw her singing out in protest against Trump’s election, Streisand gives a crisp punch to her version of Bacharach and David’s “Be Aware”, originally recorded by Dionne Warwick. “Somewhere in the world/ Someone is cold, be aware,” she sings. “And while you’re feeling young/ Someone is old, be aware.”
Knowing what a perfectionist Streisand is, I wonder if she still hears flaws in the sleek surfaces she has created here. I can’t hear any. When it comes to old school sentimentality, Babs has only herself to compete with.
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