In a Broken Country, Barbra Streisand Rings a Voice of Compassion on ‘Walls’

With a career spanning six decades, Barbra Streisand has strutted her way along the course of American history as it emerged in real time, accruing era-specific aesthetic signifiers every stop of the way, leaving behind a trail of many works that have proved artistic milestones in terms of both popular appeal and critical praise. Having long secured icon status, and been showered with virtually every distinction imaginable, she has eased back from songwriting activity in recent years. Although she has continued to release records consistently, she hasn’t turned out any original music since 2005. Of course, much has changed since then, and the turn of events ostensibly incensed Streisand enough to inspire several new songs. To be fair, however, it’s the distasteful actions of a particular individual who inspired the songs, one whose sphere of influence is so wide as to affect the likes of Streisand. Having once received a Humanitarian Award “for her years of leadership, vision, and activism in the fight for civil liberties, including religion, race, gender equality and freedom of speech,” Streisand reveals herself to be quite affected by the current state of our country, and the world. Her new album is titled “Walls,” and it’s a passionate, principled statement in response to the sociopolitical climate.

Opener “What’s On My Mind’ begins with Streisand singing about lying awake restless, presumably too troubled by the divisive political climate to catch a wink of sleep. Ironically, her singing sounds so dreamy that you wouldn’t know. This is total head-in-the-clouds, pie-in-the-sky fare. It’s a rather breezy opener, sonically, with gentle strings, spanish-tinged guitar, and flourishes. Lyrically, it’s a statement of inclusion, with Streisand singing of how every child deserves an opportunity. A particular striking few lines are “Some trees learn to bend / That’s how they survive / Maybe we must learn from them / To keep our hopes alive.” It’s a provocatively open-ended sentiment, as it’s unclear how much bending would amount to an abandoning of one’s ideals. At any rate, it’s an admirable idea. By the end of the song, Streisand is bellowing, “So much on my mind,” although she follows it up with nothing more revelatory than “Oh oh oh.” For more detail, we have the rest of the album.

“Don’t Lie To Me” rings with an elusive but unmistakable ‘70s shimmer. It’s one of the more upbeat numbers on the record, and an enjoyable change of pace from the celestial lounge, daydream believer lustre of the album at large. Streisand has revealed that although this song takes on Trump, it is isn’t actually addressed to him. She has called attention to how the chorus lyrics could just as conceivably apply to personal relationship drama. At any rate, Streisand makes her primary target quite clear, in lines like “You change the facts to justify.” To be honest, “alternative facts” have been the bread and butter of politicians since time immemorial. Our current chief of staff is simply a bit more — well — transparent with them. In one of the most memorable jabs at the Don, Streisand observes, “Your lips move but your words get in the way.”

Hilariously accurate as this little snippet might be, it could be construed to explain Streisand herself, as she appears on this record. Her lips move with all her expected virtuoso prowess and characteristic flair, but the lyrics, taken as a whole can come across as somewhat underwhelming, in the sense that they seem complacent in their wide-eyed wonder, which — as inspiring and noble as it might be — is arguably scant subject matter to flesh out a full eleven tracks. It’s no surprise that Streisand covers Lennon’s “Imagine,” and goes even so far as to splice it with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” as this entire album runs a bit like these songs stretched past capacity, and magnified tenfold. Streisand gives her medley the full musical theater treatment, pausing mid phrase to adopt momentary conversational tones, taking presumptuous liberties with the melodies, and bleating away with an effusive vocal outpuring that can seem a bit excessive for the relatively unassuming, reflective musings of the original songs.

The title track expresses a timely message with ample heartfelt conviction. In 2018, we are considerably more preoccupied with constructing barriers between populations than with celebrating, or even merely recognizing, our common humanity. In this acrid environment, any expression of liberal idealism — even if naive — is, if not downright inspiring, at least refreshingly encouraging in its untarnished humanitarian esteem. Streisand professes, “In every city, every town we would have that better day / If all the walls came tumbling down.” As someone who has always stayed true to her roots, and been quick to adopt activist causes, Streisand might consider beginning the ambitious deconstruction in Brooklyn apartments like the one in which she grew up. The neighbors surely wouldn’t mind the singing practice.  

“Lady Liberty,” appropriately placed halfway into the tracklist, is something of an apex, with Streisand putting on quite the spectacle, hitting the high notes without the slightest betrayal of reservation. Of course, one wouldn’t expect anything less of Streisand. Still, it’s easy to presume stars of Streisand’s stature are virtual royalty, based on little more than a bona fide acceptance of critical opinion. An arresting performance like this functions as an unsubtle reminder of what all the fuss was always about. If the inscription on the Statue of Liberty is today a mere vestige, Streisand sings with enough vigor and spellbinding showmanship to make a case for its repurposing.

Streisand also performs a rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Considering the earlier Lennon / Armstrong cover medley, this is hardly a surprising inclusion. It almost seems as if Streisand has specifically sought out the most cliched songs about peace and positivity in the American songbook. But if these songs are trite, so is the message they communicate. And if the tunes are played out, that’s merely testament to the universality of their appeal —and how appropriate does that make them for an album all about unity and inclusion? At any rate, Streisand’s take on the Bacharach tune is a bit awkward, as the gospel-esque vocal interjections from featured guests Michael McDonald and Babyface sound puzzlingly out of place, as if the result of some ill advised marketing strategist.

Bacharach’s song came out in 1965, a moment in time long romanticized, and gazing back in rose-tinted glasses might be more tempting now than ever before. In “Better Angels,” a sweeping, dramatic number, Streisand ponders, “What happened to the dreams / And hopes that we shared yesterday?” The posing of such a question, in today’s context, amounts to all but a defeated concession — or so it seems. If you consider how vocal Streisand makes herself throughout this album, regarding her diametrical opposition to the current socio-political climate, it’s rather surprising how positive much of the music is. She’s cast herself not as a naysayer, but as a motivating figure, a promising promoter of principle. As if to dispel any doubts that she remains ultimately optimistic, she chooses to close the record with a new version of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” from her 1963 debut. Cross your fingers, and we’ll take her for her word.

Walls” is available Nov. 2 on Apple Music.