Natalie Imbruglia: Firebird review – a canny and carefree comeback

On her first original album in a decade, Imbruglia melds whip-smart hooks and lyrics with a stylistic survey of pop and rock trends – to varying effect

It’s the kind of comeback most pop stars can only dream of.

In 2021, nearly 24 years after she broke out with her international smash hit Torn, Natalie Imbruglia has played a crucial part in two of the year’s coolest pop records. A sample of her voice drifts in – like a warped AM radio transmission – from Pond House, the delightful, breakbeat-heavy first single from stalwart British pop band Saint Ettienne’s 10th studio album, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You. And her spirit emanates from Solar Power, the breezy and sun-dappled third album by New Zealand pop prodigy Lorde, which was inspired by the heart-on-sleeve 90s pop style, with its “bright, forward, shimmery acoustics” that Imbruglia typified.

In both cases, Imbruglia represents both a stylistic guide and a kind of nostalgic ideal – an icon of openness, brightness, airiness, sentimental calm and supreme chill.

The cultural mood is just right, in other words, for the grand return of Imbruglia herself. It’s been more than a decade since the Sydney-born, Oxfordshire-based musician has released an album of originals – Male, a covers record, was released in 2015 – and although comeback records sometimes carry a whiff of desperation, Imbruglia is clearly still tapped into the easy amiability that’s made her such a significant reference point over the past 12 months.

Firebird, her sixth record and first for indie behemoth BMG, is delightfully unburdened: a carefree survey of pop and rock trends that re-establishes the fact that, at her best, Imbruglia is a canny lyricist and an incisive, whip-smart writer of hooks. At its best, as on the sprightly Not Sorry, Imbruglia positions herself entirely outside the craven economy of falls-from-grace and comebacks, embodying a kind of peaceful ebullience: “I’ve got life in my heart, life in the bank, life in my body / I’m not sorry.”

Firebird by Natalie Imbruglia is out now.
‘The cultural mood is just right for Natalie Imbruglia’s grand return.’ Photograph: BMG

Just as Lorde and Saint Etienne referenced Imbruglia to convey a specific but ineffable vibe, the highlights on Firebird touch on distinctive music trends as a kind of shorthand for certain feelings. The percussive strut of On My Way, one of the best tracks here, recalls Haim’s wonderful 2020 record Women In Music Pt III, and its empowered, head-held-high classic rock sound. What It Feels Like is animated by a headrush 80s pulse, and it recalls the head-over-heels, lovestruck dizziness of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion: “Now I know what it feels like / To love somebody like I love you,” she sings, effusive and ecstatic.

Build It Better, with its rousing chorus of “When it all falls down / Gotta build it better”, is cleanly anthemic in the style of Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Nothing Missing, co-written with KT Tunstall, channels the defiant angst of the 90s and 2000s pop of which Imbruglia herself was a part.

As the record progresses, it dips into sighing spaghetti western theatrics (Human Touch) and vocal-led balladry (Dive to the Deep, Invisible Things), but it’s this early stretch of the record that’s most compelling, its stylistic hopscotch suggesting a host of alternate realities in which Imbruglia reinvented herself as an indie-rock icon or synthpop doyenne.

Trying your hand at the sounds of the moment, though, is a double-edged sword: although Firebird is always tied together by Imbruglia’s clarion voice, the production around her leaves something to be desired. You get the sense that this is an album for those who, like Imbruglia, might have checked out of pop music for the past decade: people who won’t listen to On My Way and wish for the analog warmth of the actual Haim record; who won’t wish the bass on What It Feels Like hit a little harder and the synths dazzled a little brighter. There’s a glazed-over, plasticky feel to the actual music that lets down Imbruglia’s sharp-as-a-tack writing.

Still, it’s hard to see Firebird as anything other than a victory for Imbruglia herself, who radiates gravitas and contentment throughout. “I’m aiming higher, older and wiser,” she sings on On My Way, “This thrill could be real.” It certainly feels like it.

• Firebird by Natalie Imbruglia is out now through BMG


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Natalie Imbruglia returns to music: ‘Lucky me that the 90s is trending’
With Firebird, her first original album in more than a decade, Imbruglia reflects on the highs and lows of her career – and the new crop of artists she inspired

Katie Cunningham

17, Sep, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Gang of Youths, Natalie Imbruglia, the Goon Sax and more: Australia’s best new music for July
Each month we add 20 new songs to our Spotify playlist. Read about 10 of our favourites here – and subscribe on Spotify, which updates with the full list at the start of each month

Nathan Jolly and Guardian Australia

04, Jul, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Greatest Southern Nights featuring Ocean Alley review – Australia's live music comeback is a tepid affair
The biggest indoor music event since March is a reason to celebrate even if the chilled-out headliners fall emotionally flat

Kate Hennessy

29, Nov, 2020 @2:35 AM

Natalie Imbruglia | Pop review
Heaven, LondonAn injection of Chris Martin's songwriting seems to have perked up the Australian's live show, says Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

04, Oct, 2009 @8:45 PM

Natalie Imbruglia, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Caroline Sullivan

23, Nov, 2005 @12:04 AM

Article image
Blake Scott: Niscitam review – Peep Tempel frontman's sprawling and powerful solo debut
More mellow and experimental than fans of the cult Melbourne band might expect, Blake holds forth like the unreliable narrator he’s always been

Doug Wallen

09, Oct, 2020 @7:00 PM

Article image
Midnight Oil: The Makarrata Project review – a chorus of anger over stolen land
Voices of Indigenous musicians from Alice Skye to the late Gurrumul are given equal weight in Australian rock band’s first new music for two decades

Bernard Zuel

29, Oct, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
‘We’re back’: Play On Victoria at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl – review
Anxiety and excitement as Melbourne’s live music scene emerged from its Covid-induced mothballs

Nick Buckley

31, Oct, 2021 @1:02 AM

Article image
Tones and I: Welcome to the Madhouse review – a disappointing pastiche of pop trends
After a global hit as odd as Dance Monkey, Toni Watson had dream conditions to write a debut. Instead, the album is unadventurous and occasionally exhausting

Shaad D'Souza

15, Jul, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Jack Colwell: Swandream review – theatrical, raw songs packed with pain and soaring survival
The Patrick Wolf influence is unmistakeable – but while Colwell’s debut revels in drama and emotions, producer Sarah Blasko lends it a balancing restraint

Bernard Zuel

03, Jun, 2020 @3:17 AM