Never the most conventional of artists, Houghton’s physical presence, when I last saw her live, walked a fine line between Maiwenn Le Besco’s Diva character in The Fifth Element and one of the more eccentric Batman villains. Similarly, Welcome Back To Milk flits from sounding like the most primal of Pretenders tracks at one end of the spectrum (‘Mr. Hyde’) to the soulful folk of, say, Laura Nyro or Judee Sill at the other (‘After The Show’, ‘Four In The Morning’.)
I could never date Beth though; I suspect that one minute she’d be luring you to the bedroom with a knowing smile, but once you’d entered the perfumed boudoir, she’d smash a purple teapot over your head.
Houghton herself explained the moniker conversion saying, “This is a new sound, a new project. Du Blonde is a new incarnation and one step closer to assuming my ultimate form. Having freed myself from the rusty and bloody shackles of Beth Jeans Houghton – both musically and spiritually – I felt it only right to step forth under a new name and let the rituals commence.”
‘Assuming my ultimate form’? Talk of freeing herself from her former persona? Further proof, if you ask me, of her mutant tendencies. That said, it’s true that this otherworldly being does a fantastic job of winning over both sexes with ease. She can get away with going practically nude on her album sleeve – a running theme with her work, it seems – because although it will certainly turn male heads, it comes across, much like Debbie Harry did in the early days, as a defiant declaration of female empowerment, full of rampant bravado, rather than a tacky memento for the dirty mac wearers’ wank bank.
Perhaps it’s the frank, no holds barred delivery of the warts and all confessionals that appeal. Nowhere is this more evident than on ‘If You’re Legal’, where Houghton elicits the illicit with a commentary on a (possibly underage) love affair and rather frankly informs us that “my boy is going down.” If we were left in any doubt about whether she meant in terms of being brought down to earth or if it was intended in the more biblical sense, the point is sledgehammered home when she continues “between your thighs” and informs us that “my boy will take you high,” too. If I’ve interpreted the lyrics correctly (not those ones, I’m not THAT wet behind the ears), then it’s an interesting twist on the theme of Louis Malle‘s disturbingly provocative 1978 film ‘Pretty Baby’ and it all makes you wonder if, in her next incarnation, Houghton has one eye firmly on Huggy Bear’s fur coat.
Elsewhere, and less controversially, ‘Chips To Go’ rather splendidly updates Sparks‘ classic 1974 single ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ through its shameless lift of passages of melody, right down to the Adrian Fisher guitar motifs. Despite the petty theft, it’s an exuberant joy and one of the best tracks of the year so far, for my money.
There are more gnarly rockers than we are accustomed to here, in the guise of the rambunctious opener, ‘Black Flag’ or the foul-mouthed tirade of ‘Hard To Please’. It’s certainly a far cry from the folky serenity of the singer’s 2012 debut ‘Yours Truly Cellophane Nose’ with the Hooves Of Destiny. Arguably even more bad tempered is ‘Young Entertainment’, a vibrant floor stomper which sulkily enquires, “What is it like to fuck your mistress with her hands tied?” – in a way it’s a shame you’ll never hear this on the radio because it’s one of the album’s standouts.
But no matter, there are plenty of highlights to get your teeth into here – the more soulful roots rock of, say, Alabama Shakes discernible on ‘Hunter‘ and ‘After The Show’, which provides a welcome respite from the chaos. Samuel T Herring from Future Islands makes a cameo appearance on the quirky and effective ‘My Mind Is On My Mind’ and we are finally left pondering the meaning of life and all its trials on the quite beautiful ‘Isn’t It Wild?‘, which comes across like a World War II ballad closing Houghton’s second effort with some aplomb.
I have no idea what ‘Welcome Back To Milk’ means, but the 25-year-old’s return should be embraced with open arms on this evidence.
I hope she’s wearing that outfit when I get MY hug…
Welcome Back To Milk is released on 18th May 2015 through Mute Records.