Comparisons to Madonna were inevitable: Sophie B. Hawkins was (and is) a sexy, blond pop singer whose balls are bigger than her voice. But just one look past her break-out hit, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” and Hawkins is clearly her own creature. “Damn,” the lead single from Hawkins’s debut, Tongues & Tails, at first seems like your standard pop confection, opening with a simple drum loop and a curious yet unobtrusive vocal introduction (“That old dog has chained you up alright”) but it then erupts (with the aid of live drums, twelve-string guitar and Hawkins’s imitable yelp, “I had a dream I was your hero!”) into what can best be described as one of the greatest unrequited love songs of the decade (or any decade). Surely, it had to be a fluke. The rest of the album couldn’t possibly touch the magnificence, the utter brassiness, the pop perfection of those seven little words: Damn, I wish I was your lover. But it did, and still does. Even though Tongues & Tails failed to produce any other hits, Hawkins’ equally sex-charged “We Are One Body,” a gritty declaration of lusty co-dependency, and “Don’t Stop Swaying,” a probing ballad in which the singer-songwriter twists “Hanzel & Gretal” into an unsettling, Flowers in the Attic-style tale of incest, were more than worthy contenders for chart success.
Perhaps audiences weren’t ready for the ambiguous nature of the singer’s unbridled sexuality. Hawkins aches to give personalized meaning (the kind she so blithely adheres to “Damn”) to a cover of Dylan’s “I Want You,” the album’s only near-flub, but the singer’s original music is infinitely more captivating. “I love the way life screwed up the way you’re looking at me,” she says on the half-spoken, half-sung “Listen.” A murky, ominous bassline (courtesy of jazz bassist Mark Egan), a menacing pipe organ and metal-tinged electric guitars give the track a wholly sinister sense of want. After a false start, the lush mid-tempo ballad “Before I Walk on Fire” blooms into a desolate plea for love, deliverance and sacrifice. And many a college thesis could be written exploring the maternal complexities of tracks like “Carry Me”: “Do you love your mother?/Cause God I love mine/In a dream she let me love her/Gotta hand it to my mind.” (The lyric is preceded by a series of moans and whimpers that are the musical equivalent of Meg Ryan’s infamous celluloid diner-orgasm.)
Perhaps another reason the album failed to spawn any other hits is that Hawkins didn’t fit comfortably in any one niche: the resplendent “Saviour Child” mingles radio-friendly synth-pop with more organic instrumentation, while the funky “Mysteries We Understand” is a mixture of pop, rock, blues, drum loops and cascading synth chords. Rick Chertoff and Ralph Schuckett’s immaculate production, dipped in thick coats of backdrop whispers, city sounds and other hidden treasures, is certainly worthy of headphones. There is a percussive, jungle-like quality to songs like “Live & Let Love,” with its crisscrossing rhythms and melodies, but the song’s metallic, synthesized crickets seem inextricably bound to the concrete jungle of a big city, which is not surprising since Hawkins was born and raised in Manhattan (“California Here I Come” is told from the perspective of a native New Yorker hungrily eyeing the Sunshine State like a predator). After a decade of listening, there are still discoveries to be made on Tongues & Tails. Sonically intricate and emotionally raw, this is about as complex as pop music can get.