It’s been nearly two decades since Time Out New York claimed a young David Campbell was creating “the biggest buzz since Streisand” with his New York cabaret appearances. Since then, Campbell’s career has gone through a fair few phases; pop-rock star following in his dad’s (Jimmy Barnes) footsteps, standards singer with The Swing Sessions, cabaret festival artistic director, musical theatre leading man, and now morning television host and theatre producer.
But his latest album takes him well and truly back to his roots, and that point in his career where he was the toast of the Big Apple.
Campbell has reunited with long-time collaborator John Bucchino for an album covering music from the New York composer’s career; from his work on Broadway, off-Broadway and even his music for the DreamWorks animated film Joseph: King of Dreams. It’s an intimate affair, with Campbell’s vocals and Bucchino’s piano accompaniment the only instruments on the album, bringing to life the “new standards” Bucchino has written for cabaret artists over the last few decades. His songs are undeniably theatrical, but all work as standalones, existing in their own, individual worlds.
Some of the material feel a little dated now, especially when it comes to the lyrics. The schmaltziness of songs like Grateful and Unexpressed feels more pronounced than it did when they rose to prominence. Unexpressed begins: “Sometimes I think my heart will burst like a balloon inside my chest/with all the love that’s waiting here, unexpressed.”
Thankfully there’s an intelligence behind the writing that constantly pulls it back from the sentimental ledge it threatens to tip over.
There’s the occasional dip in energy over the course of the album; Bucchino has a particular groove as a songwriter that’s familiar from song to song, and doesn’t always feel like it’s propelling you forward as much as it feels like it’s covering ground that’s already been covered. And while the stripped back arrangements highlight Campbell’s voice, they often leave you craving a guitar or a string section.
But when the highlights come, they’re irresistible. The blues-infused What You Need is a thrilling masterclass in vocal storytelling; raw and intimate, and perfectly in-step with Bucchino’s accompaniment. Puddle of Love sees the pair tackle jazz with a stunning solo from Bucchino, and Better Than I evokes the best of ‘90s power ballads. Campbell is in fine voice throughout; there’s a directness to the way he tackles a lyric and a melody, which, after his recent ‘80s cover album Let’s Go, serves as a clear reminder as to what Campbell does best. There aren’t many singers who can make this material sound as effortless and emotionally connected as he does. Bucchino’s accompaniment is similarly impressive; lithe, technically sublime and expressive.
It’s a welcome return to the territory where Campbell is most at home. And the live shows Campbell and Bucchino will be performing around Australia are sure to be something special. These are two artists at the peak of their craft, with the confidence to let their music speak for itself. They have nothing to prove.