Life In a Beautiful Light
June 11, 2012
Scottish singer-songwriter Amy Macdonald entered the US music scene five years ago with This Is the Life, but we haven’t seen (or heard) much of her since. It’s been a long wait for US-based fans — her second album, A Curious Thing (2010), is not readily available on this side of the Atlantic — but the recently released Life in a Beautiful Light makes for the perfect summer soundtrack.
Life in a Beautiful Light still possesses the unique, old-soul-meets-youthful-optimism spirit that made This Is the Life such a success. The “long lingering glances, fairytale romances” of Macdonald’s first album and the unashamed criticism of celebrity culture of her second, however, have mostly disappeared. Superficially, the sound of Life in a Beautiful Light is very much the same as her previous albums: Macdonald still pens a catchy refrain, she still provides her own backing vocals and acoustic guitar, and she still records with the same live band. The subjects of the songs, however, cover everything from soccer teams and fast cars to love, politics, and even American holidays. It’s a curious collection, but the result turns out to be singable as well as sensitive and personal.
Macdonald firmly asserts her identity in an indie-tinged, pop-rock brand of music with the opening track “4th of July,” where hand-clapping beats and trumpet interludes create a lively accompaniment to her powerful contralto. The album’s rip-roaring single “Slow it Down” refers to her love of driving fast — though “not breaking the law” fast — cars, with an echoing vocal chorus similar to “No Roots.” “Pride” and “Life in a Beautiful Light” (inspired, interestingly enough, by a run to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”) move along at equally merry paces, bringing back familiar memories of “Barrowland Ballroom” and “Mr. Rock & Roll.”
Even amidst the sometimes-frenzied strings and electric guitar, Macdonald reminds us that above all, she is a storyteller. Lyrically, the stories may only ever be mentioned in passing, but even the slightest suggestion is sufficient. The nostalgia-tinted “Days of Being Young and Free” explains Macdonald’s approach well: “Listen to my heart as it beats for you and it’s telling you the things that I never could and it’s laying it down on the line for you.” In the next track, the haunting, stripped-down “Left That Body Long Ago” explores the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Macdonald’s grandmother suffered from the disease, and she wrote the song to comfort friends going through similar experiences with relatives. Other songs prove that Macdonald is not afraid to tackle subjects farther from home. “Across the Nile” deals with the political struggles in Egypt, while the uplifting “Human Spirit” (about the 2010 rescue of the Chilean miners) proclaims, “no matter how many bombs we’ve dropped / No matter how many wars we’ve fought / It’s good to see that it’s not dead / Human Spirit is alive and well.” The album only really falters during “The Furthest Star” and “The Game,” which overuse tired references to the fame that Macdonald so vehemently rejects.
Life in a Beautiful Light is nothing groundbreaking, but its sunny tracks come as a relief in an industry so obsessed with reinvention. It’s a toe-tapping, dashboard-drumming sort of album — something you listen to when you’re cruising down the highway with the windows down — and its optimism is infectious. Listening to it, you can’t help but believe that life really is painted in a beautiful light.