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Subject to interpretation

(Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/AP)


Subject to interpretation

Renditions of venerable works highlight the year in music

Although it wasn't apparent for most of the year, 2009 seems likely to be remembered by music enthusiasts as the "Year of the Interpreter." No sooner did Loudon Wainwright III's High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project hit stores in August (CD Spotlight, WORLD, Sept. 26) than other contemporary renditions of venerable bodies of work began appearing apace.

There were works of refreshingly unsentimental revisionism for adults by the young (Nellie McKay's Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day) and for the young by adults (Los Lobos' Los Lobos Goes Disney), note-for-note perfectionism by and for baby boomers (Cheap Trick's Sgt. Pepper Live) and self-exploitation by and for those old enough to know better (KISS' Sonic Boom, which was packaged with a disc of re-recorded hits, Cliff Richard & the Shadows' Reunited, Paul McCartney's live Good Evening New York City).

There was even a parody of self-exploiting interpretations (Spinal Tap's Back from the Dead).

No interpretations, however, were as eagerly anticipated as those of the overnight singing sensation Susan Boyle. Scottish by birth but the world's via YouTube, she has parlayed her 15 minutes of fame-or, more accurately, had it parlayed for her by Simon Cowell-into seven months and counting of unprecedented internet attention, intense media scrutiny, and now a 12-song collection titled I Dreamed a Dream, after the Les Misérables song that launched her to stardom when she sang it last April on the Britain's Got Talent TV show.

The album is a throwback to the pre-rock 'n' roll days, when popular singers routinely recorded can't-miss assortments of other people's hits. From AM-radio staples of Boyle's childhood ("Daydream Believer," "The End of the World") to perennial evangelical favorites so transcendent that even lifelong Catholics like Boyle know them well ("How Great Thou Art," "Amazing Grace"), I Dreamed a Dream seeks to be if not quite all things to all people then at least all things to all the people likely to buy it in the first place. (As a nod to the shopping season into which it has been released, it concludes with "Silent Night.")

Whether the album or Boyle's career will have legs, however, remains subject to forces beyond her or her producers' control. For one thing, the attention spans of celebrity junkies continue to shrink, and by the time the people at Columbia (her U.S. record label) or Cowell's Syco Ltd. (her English one) get around to considering a follow-up, Boyle may well have fallen off the pop-culture radar.

There's also the matter of Boyle's mental and emotional stability. In the wake of the public meltdown and subsequent hospitalization that she underwent after failing to win first prize on Britain's Got Talent, it was suggested that perhaps she should never have been allowed to compete in the first place as she had suffered "minor brain damage" at birth after having been deprived of oxygen. Meanwhile, the references in the British press to Boyle's "learning disabilities" sounded suspiciously euphemistic.

There is a fragility to I Dreamed a Dream, but it's not so much in Boyle's singing (which, despite its vibrato and somewhat limited range, glints with a girlishness and strength especially appealing in a 48-year-old woman) as in the sense one gets that her producers were being extremely careful not to push her too hard or saddle her with a potentially unpopular album.

It's as if, having assumed there won't be a next time, they've concerned themselves mainly with leaving Boyle-whose recollection of these recordings will probably outlast those of her fans-with the most pleasant memories possible.