On “Time Traveler,” the dreamy and deeply soulful, downtempo yet vocally dramatic title track from Ute Lemper’s eclectic new album, the veteran German born, NYC based singer/songwriter shares some whimsical, hopeful news – that in these dark times, even through the rain, she’s here to save us, returning from the future, offering us a bridge to someplace better. Considering her vast history as a musical theatre performer and recording artist of classic international repertoire, it’s exciting to see her not only showcasing her vast chops as a multi-genre vocalist and songwriter, but so determined to look ahead rather than rest on her laurels. (See below for the visually stunning cutting-edge video that uses AI to explore time travel and evolution).
Though listeners unfamiliar with that background could surely enjoy the rich emotional intimacy of her voice as she fashions a unique stylistic journey that finds her exploring pop, neo-soul, jazz and alternative R&B vibes, her legendary history worth recounting, if only to showcase how her remarkable artistry interpreting the genius of others has perhaps inspired her own evolution as a self-contained singer/songwriter working amidst the dynamic sonic landscapes of her creative partner Todd Turkisher.
After joining the jazz rock group Panama Drive Band at 16, she graduated from the Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna. Starting in the Viennese cast of Cats, her theatre credits in Europe and on Broadway include title or key roles in Peter Pan, The Blue Angel, Cabaret and Chicago, in addition to dubbing voices for Disney projects like The Little Mermaid for German recordings. Later named Billboard’s Crossover Artist of the Year for 1993-94, Lemper’s discography includes acclaimed interpretations of Kurt Weill compositions, German cabaret songs, a tribute to Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, pop albums in English, French and German, contribution to a Sondheim tribute project and an album (Punishing Kiss) featuring songs written for her by Scott Walker, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and others.
Almost as if the world needed it now rather than at the turn of the century, the aptly titled Time Traveler emerged from a chance discovery in 2021 of tapes featuring tracks she had written and recorded two decades ago in her partner’s studio. Finding these recordings again inspired Lemper to reflect on her history, embrace the younger self she heard and, most importantly, compose new songs from the perspective of a human being and artist who had experienced two decades more of life. Most cleverly, to keep us wondering and invite us to immerse deeper into the grand material in these ten exquisitely produced tracks, the promo materials don’t tell us which songs are from which era – only that “she shares her feelings about her path, reflecting on joys, regrets, wisdom, longings and their fulfillment.”
No matter, as the alternating purring sensuality and chaotic vocal intensity on the jazzy, atmospheric “In My Flame” is as timeless and passionately rendered as the funky/jazzy pop-R&B torchiness of the defiant “Moving On,” the seductive mystery of “Magical Stone” and the graceful, spacious, soprano sax sweetened whimsy of “At The Reservoir,” a tribute to her favorite refreshing spot in Central Park. Because it seems crafted as a thematic follow up to “Little Face,” a track on her 2002 album But One Day…, there’s a possible early 2000s time stamp on the lushly arranged, classical-tinged “Little Face – the Sequel.” But even with that, it's deliciously unknowable speculation.
The listener gets a generous glimpse of Lemper’s sophisticated international coolness on the hypnotic and sweeping French language ballad “Envie D’Amour” before she wraps the wondrous time traveling with the vocally urgent, richly harmonic, old-school soul-jazz flavored “Cry in the Dark” and the gorgeous reflective closing ballad “The Gift,” which features some of Lemper’s most dynamic vocal runs balanced by hushed intimacy. Hopefully, the time traveling she does in the future will grace us with more vibrant originals like these.