Move over, Kurt

Music - Can Ute Lemper do pop? Richard Cook finds out

A little versatility is a dangerous thing. So many decent middleweight talents in music want to spread their wings and fly through style after style, only to find themselves frazzled by their inability to tackle something that is beyond their ken. Think of the awful "jazz" albums made by so many classical divas, or the vaporous film music of pop composers who can't understand long-form. Like entrepreneurs who want to conquer a world of customers, they queue up to flap around in one spectacular piece of miscasting after another.

Singers are the most easily led astray, and the distance between pop and the classics is the hardest of all to bridge. In Ute Lemper's Punishing Kiss (Decca), the issue is, in a way, sidestepped: the artist isn't trying to be a pop queen, and she isn't starting from any familiar operatic tradition, either. Her great Bavarian voice is lean, sinewy, stretched taut: there's nothing voluptuous or comely about it. She has been Kurt Weill's ideal modern interpreter because she gets straight to the waspishness in Weimar music. But Lemper's virtuosity isn't necessarily the same thing as versatility, and for all the dazzle of her performance in Bob Fosse's Chicago, it never seemed like the sort of situation she was genuinely connected with. Breathing ice into lyrics of love is Lemper's cruel gift, and better to let her do it without Broadway chintz.

Punishing Kiss at first looks discouragingly like the kind of wretched and ubiquitous obsession of record labels with shoe-horning their artists into different genres. This is her contemporary, if not quite her pop, album. The songs were all commissioned from the high end of sophisticated rock writing: Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Tom Waits. Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot of The Divine Comedy put in three songs, and Talbot's arrangements float nine of the 12 tracks. Theirs is the crucial collaboration: The Divine Comedy's big-band pop, generously laced with Hannon's super- literate methods, is a music that might have suckled Lemper-as-pop-star. When they do Weill's "Tango Ballad", a tribute to the singer's inextinguishable muse in his centenary year, Hannon himself plays the role of Macheath in The Threepenny Opera, and his sonorous baritone is the perfect marriage. "The Case Continues" spins off Talbot's vertiginous arrangement so effectively that it seems astonishing that Lemper has not followed this route before.

Even so, their songs are only part of the record, and the rest is never as convincing. Cave's "Little Water Song" is yet another of his tiresome musings from a corpse's mouth. Costello always flirts with being too clever for his own good, and his three lyrics are an act he perfected long ago: epigrams so curt and cutting that they razor any sense the song might have attempted as a coherent, feeling piece. Compare that with the weary elegance of Waits's "Purple Avenue" - the composer's own records have become almost unlistenably bizarre by now, but the calmness of his imagery, and its gentle liaison with his harmonic framework, is the mark of a man who was born to write songs. Lemper is relatively subdued here, almost musing on the words rather than declaiming them, as Costello's lyrics force her to.

She suggests in the sleeve note that these "are like contemporary Kabarett songs, theatrical and passionate". It's hard to see how pop can ever be passionate any more, or if the work of musicians such as Costello and Cave is more profound for being perceived as high art rather than cheap music. But would any singer other than Lemper even attempt to explore such different and, at times, unfathomable depths?

Punishing Kiss (Decca) is available in all good music shops