Absolute Torch and Twang was truly a pivot point for k.d. lang and popular music at the start of the 90s.
I have a theory (Exhibit A) that 1989 was one of (if not the) most pivotal years for contemporary popular music. For me personally, the music that rocked my world in ’89 continues to reverberate in my tastes and predilections to this day. But there was always one album from the Class of 1989 that, like its creator, always stood out as an anomaly among my collection of UK indie singles, B-52’s and back catalogue reissues: Absolute Torch and Twang by k.d. lang and the Reclines.
A year after wowing audiences with Shadowland, her smoky, spot-on tribute to heroine Patsy Cline and charming the world at the ’88 Calgary Winter Olympics, lang reconnected with The Reclines for one last kick at the proverbial country can with Absolute Torch and Twang. As its title suggests, the album was an amalgamation of lang’s love for the heart-on-sleeve balladry of her musical heroes and the high-energy rockabilly she and the Reclines cranked up on 1984’s A Truly Western Experience and 87’s Angel with a Lariat.
On her earlier work, as in her live performances, lang’s performance-art antics often stole the spotlight from her genuinely staggering musical talent. Shadowland ensured that lang’s legacy would not be defined by the more playful side of her musical personality and 1992’s Ingenue cemented lang as one of the era’s greatest voices, but Absolute Torch and Twang is the underappreciated sweet spot where all of lang’s personalities harmoniously came together for one bright, beautiful record.
A showstopping gem like “Pullin’ Back the Reins” provides a preview of how lang’s soulful, seductive alto would own modern standards from Leonard Cohen and Neil Young years later. Finger snappin’ and knee-slappin’ opener “Luck In My Eyes” and the bouncy “Big Boned Gal” ensure there is enough titular twang to justify the album name, while the torch-song balladry of “Three Days” and “Trail of Broken Hearts” balances the record with the right amount of emotional ebb and flow.
The context for a country-pop crossover was non-existent in 1989; the chart-topping crossover successes of Garth Brooks and lang’s fellow Order of Canada honouree Shania Twain was still years away. It’s no surprise that Absolute Torch and Twang not only feels like an oddity among its contemporaries but within lang’s musical oeuvre as well. Too country for an all-out pop crossover, and more polished and poised than the roughed-up rockabilly she first made her name with, Absolute Torch and Twang was truly a pivot point for k.d. Lang and popular music at the start of the 90s. Not only is it an outstanding, incomparable album showcasing her many multi-talented selves, it’s the blueprint for both lang’s future career trajectory and country music’s ascension into the popular canon.
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