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.”
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