William Shakespeare as a Pop Songwriter

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William Shakespeare as a Pop Songwriter

William Shakespeare is best known, of course, as a playwright and a sonneteer. Less appreciated, however, is his other career as a pop songwriter. This year, on the 400th anniversary of his death, Rufus Wainwright and Paul Kelly have released new albums, Take All My Loves and Seven Sonnets & a Song respectively, that make it clear just how talented the Bard was in this sideline.

Most of his plays contain a handful of lyrics meant to be sung, no doubt to popular tunes of late 16th or early 17th century. Those melodies were never written down, alas, but scores of composers have done their best to supply the missing music in succeeding centuries. Even Shakespeare’s sonnets, those marvels of literary engineering, have invited composers to match the bouncing meters and clever rhymes with syncopation and melody.

For a long time, most of Shakespeare’s posthumous collaborators were classical composers and/or theater composers. But in recent years both jazz artists (such as John Dankworth and Theo Bleckmann) and pop artists have volunteered to co-write songs with the long-dead Englishman. Washington’s Bill & Taffy recorded the song “O Mistress Mine” from Twelfth Night. Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry crooned “Sonnet No 18,” and Marianne Faithfull recited the “Epilogue” to The Tempest over Angelo Badalamenti’s string charts.

Perhaps best known are Loreena McKennitt’s adaptations of “Prospero’s Speech” from The Tempest and a monologue from Cymbeline to her ethereal soprano. But McKennitt does everything possible to distance us from Shakespeare’s words, wrapping them in ghostly synthesizers, Elizabethan harps and resounding echo. This may have enhanced the Renaissance Faire mysticism of the lyric, but it also eclipsed their accessibility and blunted their emotional impact.

Both Wainwright and Kelly try to avoid such stumbles on their own adaptations. The former warmed up for this year’s exercise by adapting three Shakespeare sonnets for his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Those unaccompanied vocal/piano performances ranged from the somewhat strained art song of “Sonnet 43” to the beguiling balladry of the homoerotic “Sonnet 20.” On the latter, Wainwright’s languid tenor seemed to moon despairingly and timelessly over an unattainable love.

Encouraged by these first attempts, the songwriter devotes this year’s Take All My Loves to nine Shakespearean sonnets in full-fledged arrangements that combine a pop band with either a symphony orchestra or a string quartet. The three earlier sonnets are included, but this time Wainwright turns them over to Austria’s classical soprano Anna Prohaska. She lends sumptuous tone and precision pitch to the songs, but she sounds emotionally distant in a way that Wainwright wasn’t on the originals.

This trade-off echoes a similar debate in theatrical circles: Is it more important that an actor articulate the dialogue with bell-like clarity and mathematical meter or that one capture the psychology and emotion of the character? Everyone will answer that you need both, but in the real world you have to make choices, and Wainwright often errs by deferring to classical reputations rather than trusting his own pop instincts.

He has recruited such actors as William Shatner, Carrie Fisher and Helena Bonham Carter to recite the sonnets before or after they are sung by Prohaska, sister Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine and others. But the album’s most persuasive moments come when Wainwright himself takes the foreground and sings the sonnets as if there were no difference between a wounded lover in Queen Elizabeth’s London and one in Bill De Blasio’s New York.

On both “Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)” and “Take All My Loves (Sonnet 40),” Wainwright kindles a rock ‘n’ roll groove under the string quartet to lend a surging momentum to his appeals to an oblivious lover in the former and a fickle one in the latter. When he belts out, “Mine own love’s strength seem to decay/O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might,” as if he were Peter Gabriel locking into a synth loop, the words fit the music so naturally that it almost seems that the music came first and the words later.

If Wainwright finds mixed success in turning Shakespeare’s lyrics into pop songs, Australia’s Paul Kelly delivers one triumph after another on Seven Sonnets & a Song. None of McKennitt’s ersatz mysticism nor Wainwright’s art-song ambitions mar the low-key ease of these songs. These country-rock concoctions roll off the tongue so naturally that it’s hard to believe that the lyricist has been dead four centuries. It often sounds as if Willie the Shake and Willie Nelson bashed out these tunes at Tootsie’s Orchid Bar behind the Grand Ole Opry in the 1960s.

A bluesy swing reinforces the sassy humor of “Sonnet 138,” which at first argues that dishonesty can sometime advance the cause of love and then delights in the double entendre of “I lie with her, and she lies with me,/In our faults by lies we flattered be.” A jangly Byrdsian guitar figure prepares the way for the stoic acceptance of growing old on “Sonnet 73,” even if the singer’s bald head resembles a winter tree of “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” As a bonus, Kelly offers his adaptation of Philip Sidney’s “My True Love Hath My Heart,” sung by the great Australian singers Vika and Linda Bull.

Best of all is Kelly’s transformation of “O Mistress Mine,” the Clown’s speech from “Twelfth Night.” Over a gentle guitar arpeggio, Kelly sings sweetly and winningly as if the women he’s addressing were standing, undecided, at the bedroom door. “What is love?” he croons. “’Tis not hereafter. Present mirth hath present laughter.” Kelly has done us all a favor by reminding us that Shakespeare’s rhyming verses aren’t handcuffed to dour English teachers nor new-age mystics. They are full of mischief and merriment, and such mirth can be made present if given the right tune. For Shakespeare, in addition to everything else, was a top-notch pop songwriter.