From time to time I have written about the strange career of Natalie Imbruglia here. In the United States, she is best known as having performed a massively popular cover of the song “Torn,” which was absolutely inescapable on the radio but which was never released as an official single because her label (perhaps understandably) wanted to encourage Americans to buy her album Left Of The Middle rather than the popular single, and so the song only charted late in the 1990s long after its peak when airplay-only songs became eligible to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. In the United States, at least, her other singles were not nearly as popular as Torn was, with modest success for songs like “Wishing I Was There” but not a great deal of other notable songs that are widely remembered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is far better known in the rest of the English-speaking world, having been a longtime actor on British television with several albums that had massive hits in the UK and Australia. After the success of her initial major label album, the range of Imbruglia’s songs can be measured by the wide gulf that exists between her minor soundtrack hit from the movie Stigmata in “Identify,” which is one of the most beautiful and dark songs of the late 1990s, a personal favorite of mine, and was written by Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan and her minor hit from her follow-up album White Lillies Island, the innocent and charming “Wrong Impression,” which is also a favorite of mine.
Neither of those, though, are songs I wish to go into detail in at this time. After having had a successful follow-up to the somewhat disappointing White Lillies Island, which gave her two more top 40 hits in the UK and another one in Australia, in 2009 she released Come To Life, which only had one single, “Want.” This song combines rather chilling music with what appear to be somewhat passive-aggressive sentiments about wishing the best for a former lover, where the lyrics about moving on are combined with a video that teases the ex with all that he is missing by having broken up with her, a song that appears to have been inspired by real life and that apparently included songwriting and backing vocals from said ex, Silverchair’s lead singer Daniel Johns, and also co-songwriting from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.
Despite that starpower and the rather interesting backstory to the song, as well as descriptions by Digital Spy of the song being what would happen if Kate Bush hit the dance floor, the song itself flopped upon release. It barely cracked the top 100 in the UK and did not even manage to hit the top 20 on airplay in the artist’s native Australia. The only territory where the song appears to have been well-regarded was Italy, who sent the song to the top ten and where it made a respectable year-end chart showing of #56, and where it was certified gold. The Italians got it right. This song is a combination of bitter and sweet, a somewhat chilling example of dreampop, where there is a combination of the sinister as well as the romantic, and it is perhaps telling that I have always been fond of this song upon its release and ever since then.
What is it that makes a song like this resonate with some people and not at all with others? What does it take for a song like this to reach an emotional impact? While it is to be regretted that this song and its lack of success basically ended Imbruglia’s career as a pop musician–it would be six years before she released a cover album of songs originally written and performed by men called Male and another six years before her proper studio follow-up, an album that had no charting singles, so far as I know, anywhere in the world–this song remains a testament to the split in Imbruglia’s performance of lighthearted and sweet songs on the one hand and a certain taste for the dark and brooding on the other. This song is a reflection of both aspects of her nature as a recording artist, and it works well considering that some of us, myself included, are people of that same mixture of sweet and sour. And sometimes we all need songs that reflect that complex internal balance between the two.