MARY J BLIGE; The London Sessions (Capitol)

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Mary J Blige’s ‘London Sessions’ album has been one of the most pre-publicised and anticipated long players of 2014. Its release comes after what for a superstar like Ms B has been a difficult time. Her last proper album was her gold-selling Christmas collection but that was followed by a disappointing ‘Think Like A Man’ – the soundtrack to a comedy film. That one peaked at #30 on the Billboard chart and, tellingly, sold less than 10,000 copies in its first week – the singer’s worst sales figures, we’re told. Mary and her team quickly regrouped and decided on a fresh approach… and where better to freshen up than in London. Encouraged by the reaction to her input on British electronic garage-house duo Disclosure’s ‘F For You’, the diva decamped to London for a month and working with people like Naughty Boy, Emeli Sande, Sam Smith and, once again, Disclosure, crafted the ‘Sessions’ set.

The big question, of course, is is the record any good? Has the change of location and approach worked? Will ‘The London’s Sessions’ yield the kind of sales figures that Mary and Capitol have become used to? Well answers to two of those questions are, of course, subjective while the answer to the third (though dependent on the first two) will only be revealed in time.

The short answer to our little quiz is that this is a different Mary J Blige – freer and looser than we’ve heard her before and certainly in thrall to her new collaborators and the British approach to soul and R&B. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the opening track, ‘Therapy’. Though Mary might not admit it, the obvious reference point is Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’. The tune shares the same sparseness and a lyric that asks “Why would I spend the rest of my days unhappy when I can go to therapy two times a day?” It’s a great opening track enhanced by some fine retro Hammond and a measure of bluesy humming from Sam Smith.

Other key cuts are the pleading and/or plaintive ballads like ‘Doubt’, ‘Not Loving You’, ‘Long Hard Look’, ‘Whole Damn Year’, and ‘Worth My Time’. As an antidote to the melancholy ‘Pick Me Up’ offers oodles of optimism… complete with an odd and almost trad jazz style clarinet riffling in and out of the pacey beats. The full-on collaboration with Disclosure is pacey too while ‘My Loving’ crosses into house territory but I’m sure some will find the vocoded vocal effects a little wearisome.

The clipped R&B beater that is ‘Right Now’ harks back to old school Blige and ‘Right Now’ has the same kind of soulful urgency… though vocally I couldn’t stop thinking that there was a similarity to a certain Michael Jackson (and it wasn’t just on this track, by the way).

Yes, something old; plenty that’s new and some irritating oddities. At irregular intervals through the album, the UK collaborators chip in with fairly obvious spoken comments – they talk about how great Ms Blige is; how, despite that, she’s still “real”… just like them; how brave she is to make this change… and so on. I could have done without this chirpy commentary; it detracts from the music which should have been left to speak for itself.

(BB) 4/5