It’s strange to think that nearly a decade ago, Tanya Donelly was rubbing shoulders with the big time. Grammy nominations, hit singles, and a almost permanent presence in the music press – what could go wrong? Sadly, Donelly’s band Belly failed to live up to the promise of their first album Star and, after a poorly received follow up and a disappointing solo album, Lovesongs For Underdogs, she disappeared, apparently to a life of blissful matrimony and motherhood.
Now, five years after that solo album, Donelly has returned and it’s like she’s never been away. Beautysleep is an almost effortless collection of ethereal guitar pop typified by recent single The Storm. A lovely county-like drift, underpinned by some intriguing lyrics (“I’m not finished yet, just under construction….my reputation’s shot, I just wanted to get it right”) this should allay any Donelly fans’ fears that she’d left it too long to stage a comeback.
In the five years between Lovesongs For Underdogs and Beautysleep, Donelly has married Dean Fisher (ex-Juliana Hatfield Three) and given birth to a baby girl. This has obviously influenced many of the songs here, but unlike so many albums in this vein, it doesn’t leave a sickly taste in the mouth. The Night You Saved My Life, with it’s key line “Now I sit with my babe at my breast” is probably the most obvious “motherhood” song, but the sheer exuberance of the song carries it off to become possibly the catchiest thing on the album.
There are darker moments here too. So Much Song is Donelly’s saddest song since Belly’s Untogether with it’s gorgeous chorus of “I know my name has not been easy on your lips”, but overall it’s clear that this record finds Donelly at her happiest.
There are some unsubstantial tracks here, such as Moonbeam Monkey, but Donelly’s marvellous voice even distinguishes these. You can keep your Whitneys, your Mariahs, your Celines (especially your Celines come to that); Tanya Donelly demonstrates on this record how all female singers can sound. Coy and whispering one minute, powerful and soaring the next, only PJ Harvey comes close to her as one of the most underrated contemporary female singers.
Beautysleep probably won’t propel Donelly back to the Grammy nominated, hit single days of yesteryear, but that’s probably the last thing that she’s bothered about these days. It’s good to have her back; let’s just hope she doesn’t leave it five years next time.