Oh, the irony: Wilderness, the first Sophie B. Hawkins album free of a major label executive’s watchful eye, is probably the record her former label Sony Music wanted her to make all along. Whether she was working with producer Rick Chertoff on the raw and thorny Tongues & Tails or crafting sleek pop songs with Stephen Lipson on Whaler, Hawkins’s identity and creative command has always shone through crystal clear, but it was 1999’s self-produced Timbre, an earthy medium between her richly layered debut and its more pop-centered follow-up, that seemed to finally show the real Sophie. So it’s a bit dismaying to find that Wilderness is perhaps her most straightforward, “mainstream” effort to date. The album’s lead single, the catchy “Beautiful Girl,” is like a slicker, decked-out cousin of the singer’s previous hits, while songs like “Open Up Your Eyes,” “Meet Me On A Rooftop,” and “Walking On Thin Ice” (all conveniently stacked up at the start of the album) are typical go-for-radio tracks that would better suit Hawkins’s less adventurous MOR singer-songwriter contemporaries. Wilderness is also Hawkins’s lightest album, with perhaps a little too much sunshiny glee (and sugar-shocking hooks) for its own good. But despite some dated production, muddled mixing, and lyrics that are occasionally trite (“Oh, why did I give you the key to my heart?”) or just plain bad (“You’re enticing me with your scintillating schism”), there’s no denying the pop power of tracks like “Soul Lover” and “Angel of Darkness,” which finds Hawkins in a tug of war with a lover’s addiction. Hawkins commissioned German dance producers the Berman Brothers (the duo responsible for “Who Let The Dogs Out”) this time around, but you’d never know it judging by standard Hawkins fare like the torchy piano ballad “Supersexywoman.” If Wilderness was a departure in any way (like, say, Jewel’s dance/pop-rooted 0304 or the remix of “Soul Lover” found at the end of the disc), then it might truly sound like Hawkins is forging a new path for herself. Instead, listening to Wilderness is akin to searching for a diamond in the rough.
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