Arguably the greatest female pop singer ever to emerge from the UK (sorry, not sorry Adele) Dusty Springfield had donned a host of stylistic guises by the time she went to Philadelphia to make a record in September 1969. From Peter, Paul & Mary-style folk as a member of The Springfields (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”) to solo releases spanning girl-group grandeur (“I Only Want to Be with You”), torchy R&B (“All Cried Out”) and slinky ballads (“The Look of Love”), the former Mary O’Brien excelled at everything she tried, thanks to a sultry, soaring voice that invariably induced goosebumps.
A Brand New Me: The Complete Philadelphia Sessions compiles the 10 tracks from that fall, as well as seven others committed to tape the following February. At the time, Springfield was coming off what was possibly her creative peak: the Southern-fried soul of Dusty in Memphis and its irresistible hit single, “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Next: a collaboration with the team headed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, soon to launch Philadelphia International Records, the source of hits by MFSB, Teddy Pendergrass and others. It wasn’t a perfect fit. Inspired by the sophisticated sounds of later Motown, Gamble-Huff were finding their voice, and hadn’t hit their stride yet. The arrangements on A Brand New Me can go overboard—fewer strings and flutes would have improved “Bad Case of the Blues”—while some songs, including “Something for Nothing,” sacrifice feel for intricacy. The elaborate settings often allow Springfield’s gorgeous voice little room to breathe and leave her sounding uneasy, a problem surely exacerbated by the fact that the September tracks were cut in just five days. It’s easy to imagine the notoriously self-critical singer wishing for more time to acclimate to this challenging material.
However, Springfield’s radiance can’t be extinguished. Two standouts were originally recorded by Chicago’s Jerry Butler, who previously made his own trip to Philly. The beautiful title track tells a touching story of renewal, and “Lost” joyously echoes Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.” Elsewhere, the dreamy “Let Me Get in Your Way” mesmerizes like a wicked love potion; the elegant “I Wanna Be a Free Girl” suggests the wistful longing of Pet Sounds. There’s even something for Springfield fans who think they’ve heard it all, in the form of the previously unreleased “Sweet Charlie,” a lovely tale of a couple’s bus-station reunion.
If short of her best, this set outshines most of her ‘70s efforts, which grew progressively dire. (She made a triumphant return in 1987, teaming with Pet Shop Boys for “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” and died in 1999.) Sometimes breathtaking, sometimes merely ok, A Brand New Me recalls a time when Dusty Springfield’s divine aura could still dazzle.