The narrative behind Susan Boyle’s record-setting I Dreamed a Dream is among the most talked about in recent pop history, and there’s real critical fecundity to that narrative. Whether as a comment on the sad state of the current musical landscape, what with the contrast between Boyle’s pure vocal tone and that of barely passable chart-topping singers like Taylor Swift and T-Pain, or as a means of exposing still rampant misogyny and sheer idiocy inherent in the public’s slack-jawed awe that a matronly woman-of-a-certain-age could actually be good at something, Boyle’s rise to fame makes for a fascinating, loaded media study that’s worth serious consideration and conversation.
That makes it a shame, if not exactly a surprise, that Dream is such a deadly dull affair that is generally devoid of subtext or insight. Instead, Boyle and her team have chosen to use the bulk of the album’s songs—and even Boyle’s handwritten liner notes, which explain what each of the tracks means to her—to further only the most literal, straightforward aspects of her now familiar story. The theme of realizing one’s dreams as it’s explored in art is already trite, threadbare territory that predates even Horatio Alger stories, but Boyle sings some variation on that subject on at least half of the album’s songs. While her rendition of the album’s title tune, taken from Les Misérables, demonstrates her technical competence and builds to a suitably dramatic climax, Boyle’s similarly stage-ready delivery on inferior songs like “Proud” and the didactic “Who I Was Born to Be” quickly becomes ponderous.
However lovely her voice may be (and, though her skill has been exaggerated somewhat, there’s genuinely no denying her vocal power or gorgeous tone, and she sounds almost shockingly youthful throughout the record), it’s the flaws in Boyle’s performances that are among the album’s most critical problems. She sounds perfectly at home on traditional hymns “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace,” but she adheres to the standard arrangements of both songs without even the slightest variation in the melodies or in her phrasing to make the performances distinctive. And her awkward, stilted reading of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” (curiously, stripped of the tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in its original title) makes abundantly clear the distinction between “hymns” and “gospel songs”: Boyle can sing the former with poise and precision, but she simply lacks the grittiness and desperation that Griffin’s spectacular song demands. A cover of Madonna’s “You’ll See”—intended as a predictable and frankly juvenile gesture toward all of the naysayers who doubted Boyle, even though the song’s lyrics barely support such a through line—is just as ill-fitting, with Boyle emphasizing individual phrases seemingly at random, making for a scattered interpretation that serves to highlight the presence Madonna brought to her original version. What these songs prove is that Boyle is not the type of singer who can sing competently within any style.
But there are a couple of covers that do work, and it’s because Boyle doesn’t approach them with hymn-like reverence and because they’re less obvious song choices. There’s a natural sadness in Boyle’s timbre that brings a genuine gravity to her melancholy take on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” The unobtrusive piano arrangement keeps the focus on Boyle’s sensitive reading of the song. That approach is sure to please fans who have bought into Boyle without question, but it makes Dream a largely monotonous, uninspired collection that too often places the singer before the song instead of finding the two working in unison. Other than “Wild Horses,” the only other cut that truly impresses is a slowed-down rendition of the Monkees’s “Daydream Believer” that showcases the song’s indelible pop melody. And again, it’s one of just two songs that allow the natural timbre of Boyle’s voice, rather than her famous backstory, to give the song some real pathos.
Because the focus of the album is on the obvious themes of her story, Dream lacks depth and doesn’t provide any insight into Boyle beyond what has already been widely reported in the media. Because the songs are so riddled with clichés and are largely too familiar, and because the music is so tepid and tasteful to a fault, the album simply isn’t able to overcome that lack of depth. It’s hard to begrudge Boyle her success (truly, there’s an element of puppy-kicking to saying anything negative about her), but it’s also easy to wish that it was the result of a more interesting or distinctive project.