❉ We review Dusty’s final album from 1996, recently reissued by Cherry Red as a Collector’s Edition 2-disc set.
When Pet Shop Boys effectively revived Dusty Springfield’s career in 1987, the result was a strong, surprising, album: 1990’s ‘Reputation’. Startlingly of its time, it paired Springfield’s distinctive voice with throbbing techno beats, drum machines and sampled vocals. On ‘Reputation’ she played with the modern toys used by – as she put it – “the younger set,” but roundly beat them at their own game.
Despite its success, a follow-up album would not come to fruition until 1996 and, instead of following in its predecessor’s trailblazing footsteps, ‘A Very Fine Love’ is a much more restrained affair, a determined attempt to record what could kindly be termed an “adult contemporary” album. As a result, listeners who came to Springfield as a result of ‘Reputation’ may find themselves wrong-footed by the more middle of the road material found herein.
The original intention, given where it had been recorded, had been to call the album ‘Dusty in Nashville’, a sly reference to the ‘Dusty in Memphis’ the 1969 album that had given the world Son of a Preacher Man. Her record company, however, nixed that decision, fearing it would lead people to expect a country album.
And a country album it certainly isn’t. By the 1990s Nashville may still have had the associations of its musical past, but it was far more of a melting pot of styles. The resulting album does admittedly contain nuances of country – mainly through instrumental nods – but Springfield felt strongly that she didn’t have what she called “a country voice” so resisted going down that route to any greater extent.
But still ‘A Very Fine Love’ sees Springfield take a step back to older sounds. There are no fast disco stompers or techno beats to be found here. Instead it’s up to Springfield herself to take centre stage.
A prime example is Roll Away which stands as not only the album opener, but is also the last single released before Springfield’s death in 1999. In hindsight this renders the track rather more poignant as the lyrics find her in reflective mood, seeing where her “soul’s at now” and equating life to the river’s endless journey to the sea. But amongst the melancholic reverie she rises for the choruses, effortlessly overcoming the services of an appropriately gospel-like choir and proving herself to be less than broken; defiant even if resigned.
Choirs feature prominently on ‘A Very Fine Love’, even though Springfield certainly doesn’t need their support. That said, it’s an interesting combination: the contrast between their religious rhapsody and Springfield’s raw soul certainly render Loving Proof and You Are the Storm far more interesting than they would otherwise be. They’re both pleasant songs, but the tension between the vocal styles lifts both tracks immeasurably.
Diane Warren is, as a songwriter, a yet-to-be-acquired taste for this reviewer, but Springfield had long wanted to record her songs. And one of her contributions, the duet Wherever Would I Be is arguably the tent-pole track on the album. It’s a fairly standard power-ballad, with inevitable axe solo, but despite its obviousness it is a powerful stand-out track where Daryl Hall’s breathy rock-God vocal proves to be a perfect match for Springfield’s smokiness.
The highlight of the album is the track from which it derives its title Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love. Despite the polished modern production, it is the most in keeping with Springfield’s blue-eyed-soul roots, all 60’s soul and soft horns – and it’s easily the track you can most imagine Springfield singing on a ‘Top of the Pops’ rostrum, pencil-microphone in hand, beehived up to ceiling whilst filmed in grainy black and white.
Of the other tracks we have the egregiously 80s-eque ballad Go Easy on Me and the languid and regretful I Can’t Help the Way I Don’t Feel. The latter is one of the most stereotypically Nashville numbers on the album, but this distinction is the only reason it really manages to be anything other than filler.
In contrast the penultimate track Old Habits Die Hard helps bring the album to a strong finish. It’s a jaunty, upbeat number with a bleak story at its heart – which, as with so many pop songs, is the secret to its appeal. There are key-changes aplenty, and in all honesty it feels like it should be the album closer. Instead, however, that honour is given to Where is a Woman to Go? – an undoubtedly bleak ending for the record, but an effective one, with Springfield making a strong mark on an old standard.
Compared to its predecessor the bonus tracks for this release seem relatively disappointing, only comprising two additional mixes of Wherever Would I Be?. That said, the version remixed by Walter Afanasieff – of My Heart Will Go On fame – has a surprise for anyone who stays past the fade-out, a nice interview with Springfield herself where she talks about the making of the album, her reputation as a diva and the diversity of her fan-base.
The bonus DVD itself also provides slim pickings, containing only the promotional videos for the two singles. The French and Saunders-hosted ‘Full Circle’, made at the time of the album, is a forgivable omission as it is already available on DVD, but less forgivable is the performance on ‘Tonight with Jools Holland’ of Where is a Woman to Go where the backing vocalists include the talents of Alison Moyet and Sinead O’Connor. Given so many recent re-releases have been able to mine the BBC archive, this would have been a nice addition to an otherwise sparse DVD.
All in all, ‘A Very Fine Love’ is a qualified success. Some of the productions would have felt dated even in 1996 – perhaps the reason for its relative lack of success – but when that voice is added to every track you can’t help but be held captive. It’s not an exciting album, perhaps, maybe not even a brilliant one, but as the last album released in Dusty Springfield’s lifetime it’s still a very fine one indeed.
❉ ‘Dusty Springfield – A Very Fine Love: Expanded Collector’s Edition’ (SFE) is out now from Cherry Red Records as a CD/DVD, RRP £12.99.