Review of John Barrowman’s “Music Music Music”

Almost exactly a year after the release of
his first easy listening album, Another
Side
, openly gay Torchwood
star John Barrowman has returned with a new album titled Music Music Music. Released today in the UK via Sony BMG, it has some
similarities with his debut effort: again, it consists mostly of covers of
classic pop and musical theater songs, with a little country added for good
measure. But there’s one new development that may be pleasing to his
AfterElton.com fans: Barrowman has considerably upped the gay content.

The first indication of this came back in
September, when the video for the album’s one original song, “What
About Us
” hit the Web.  Although artists from Christina Aguilera to t.A.T.u. have
made use of same-sex kissing in their videos, “What About Us” breaks new ground
with its matter-of-fact portrayal of a gay male couple living out their lives
in parallel with a straight couple – particularly given that the song is sung
by an openly gay artist.

The “What About Us” music video:

It certainly makes a change from the video for
Barrowman’s “All Out Of Love” last year, which showed him singing directly to
camera in a succession of different shirts, with no actual partner in sight.

Although the song “What About Us” is, to my
ears at least, disappointingly bland, the album also sees former London West
End performer Barrowman tackling two explicitly gay musical theater songs with
gusto. One of them is “I Am What I Am” from La
Cage aux Folles
– a song originally performed by drag queen character Albin
at the end of the first act. With defiant, yet tongue-in-cheek lines like “so
what if I love each feather and each spangle" and “it’s time to open up
your closet, ” the song is a perfect match with Barrowman’s open, enthusiastic,
and unapologetic persona.

For me, though, the highlight of the album,
both in gay and in musical terms, is Barrowman’s duet of the Björn Ulvaeus and
Benny Andersson-penned song “I Know Him So Well” from the musical Chess. Released in 1985 as a single
featuring the voices of Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson, the track was
originally intended as a heterosexual love song performed by a chess champion’s
estranged wife and his mistress.

But Barrowman has enlisted the duetting
talents of openly gay British musical theater performer Daniel Boys (who first
came to the general public’s attention when he appeared in the reality talent
competition Any Dream Will Do in 2007
– where, incidentally, he provided one
of the series’ few “gay” moments, holding hands with fellow contestant
Lewis Bradley as they went in front of judge Andrew Lloyd Webber to hear which
of them had been eliminated).

The result is unlike anything I have heard
on a mainstream album before, as two successful openly gay men sing in
gender-specific terms about the end of an affair with their mutual flame:
“Wasn’t he fine?” sighs Boys, while Barrowman, with typical sexual energy,
growls back “Wasn’t he fine?” It’s like hearing two old friends put their feet
up and compare notes over a drink at their favorite gay bar. Oh, and their
voices are pretty good, too.

Barrowman (left) & Daniel Boys

Boys joins Barrowman and two other previous
Any Dream Will Do contestants, Keith
Jack and Ben James-Ellis, for a playful, jazzed-up version of Billy Joel’s
“Uptown Girl” which is another one of the album’s better tracks. Given how
alive Barrowman can sound on upbeat numbers, it’s just a shame that here, as on
Another Side, at least half of the
album is weighed down by so-so renditions of sentimental ballads. Sarah
McLachlan’s “Angel”, Julie Gold’s “From A Distance”, Keith Urban’s “You’ll
Think Of Me, ” and Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting For You”, all pad out
the album without being anything to get excited about (Barrowman particularly
seems to struggle to come up with the wistful gentleness to go with the last
song).

He fares better with two other slow-paced
songs, Barry Manilow’s “I Made It Through The Rain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both
Sides Now”, both of which attractively showcase his clear, soaring voice.
Perhaps it’s his potential to go over-the-top with upbeat tracks that has led
Sony to steer him away from them, since in “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (a song
that has previously been covered by artists as diverse as Andy Williams and
Lauryn Hill), he goes blaringly full-throttle, summoning up more the image of
someone shouting through a megaphone than any romantic intimacy.

The one of the final tracks on the album, a high-camp
version of “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”, complete with dramatic horns and
backing vocalists wailing “ooh” and “aah, ” does nothing to replace the classic
rendition by Dusty Springfield – although it does, again, do something to up
the album’s gay factor. Overall, Music
Music Music
is a mixed bag, probably lending itself better to use as a CD
you have on in the background than to intense and focused listening – but “I
Know Him So Well” does make it stand out.

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