CD Review: Eleri Ward’s “A Perfect Little Death—Suf/Sond”

June 14, 2021 | By

People everywhere are or will be recounting tales of what they did doing the Covid lockdown, but few will have a souvenir of that time as brilliant and creative as singer-songwriter Eleri Ward‘s. In a closet of her New York apartment, she fashioned A Perfect Little Death—Suf/Sond, a recording that imagines what 13 iconic Stephen Sondheim songs would be like if they had been written, instead, by indie folk music legend Sufjan Stevens. It is the epitome of “high concept,” but this Ghostlight CD delivers more than one could possibly imagine. It is a revelation.

Eleri Ward

Accompanying herself beautifully on guitar and creating a cascading wave of background vocals that become a choir here and a string section there, Ward provides a uniquely personal sound that enriches the material at every turn. That sound is established right at the start, when “Johanna (Reprise)” (Sweeney Todd) becomes a gentle, plaintive exploration of longing. A brilliant, understated performance illuminates one of Sondheim’s most poetic dissections of the darker dimensions of love, “Every Day a Little Death” (A Little Night Music). Exquisitely arranged vocals swirl through “Pretty Women” (Sweeney Todd), crystallizing the soaring rumination on beauty. In Ward’s hands, “Children Will Listen” (Into the Woods) becomes a lullaby of admonition rising into the heavens. One of Sondheim’s most powerful ballads, Passion’s “Loving You,” becomes even more strong in the singer’s impassioned declaration of love and desire. On “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park with George), Ward eschews the traditional celebratory declaration, choosing instead to make it a reluctant confession of obsession. I have never been as moved by this extraordinary song.

The acid test for the entire project is, of course, “Send In the Clowns” (A Little Night Music); Ward’s version soars to triumphant heights as as she chooses not regret, but realization and resignation. Its gentle power envelops the listener. The “poppiest” of the CD’s repertoire, “Losing My Mind” (Follies), is in no way diminished by the recording’s most traditional delivery, retaining its haunting description of memory and loss. “In Buddy’s Eyes” (Follies) is transformed from a big brooding ballad into a gentle confession that brings new meaning to the song. “Take Me to the World” (Evening Primrose) emerges as a heartbreaking response to a life not fully lived; her voice and her dreams rise to the heights of possibility and they take our hearts along with them. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is perhaps the most folkish of Sondheim’s creations. Lea DeLaria memorably turned it into a searing, unstoppable swing number but Ward chooses to go deep inside the cautionary tale as the buskers of old might have. Rather than wailing her desire to the rafters with “Being Alive” (Company), the singer makes it a piercing interior monologue. “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park with George) is the perfect choice to close the album. She becomes a literal one-woman chorus, immersing herself completely in Sondheim’s overwhelming tone poem.

A Perfect Little Death—Suf/Sond from Eleri Ward is unlikely to be equaled in 2021; it joined my Desert Island Disc pantheon on first listen. If you are like me, when “Sunday” ends you will go right back to “Johanna” and start this extraordinary experience all over again.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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