Strip Search: Peyroux sheds the covers and reveals a more personal side on Bones.

Sign up for our free newsletter

“Old Hamlet’s done now, dead and gone,” Madeleine Peyroux sings in the title track of her fifth album. The line sets off a disc with Shakespearean preoccupations—betrayal, lost love, and mortality, to name the big ones—that put Peyroux in darker territory than her previous, mainly revivalist/interpretive efforts. Lyrically and personally, Peyroux has long remained elusive, busking her way around Paris after the release of her first album (1996’s Dreamland) and following her particular brand of nostalgic bliss to a Best International Artist nod at the 2007 BBC Jazz Awards. That bliss seems more subdued on her first album of originals—the woman who could smile warmly at the debris of a love affair has gotten serious, ditching the speakeasy soundscape that established her as the presumptive heir to Billie Holiday and dialing back the arrangements to a miserly (but superb) rhythm section. Bare Bones, then, is an apt title for the album on which Peyroux switches from interpreter to songwriter, returning to the essentials and baring, for a change, her own soul. Along the way, we get a sense for why she’s hung up on Old Hamlet—like Young Hamlet, she’s lost her father, the man who taught her “How warm whiskey is/In a cold ditch/And one more thing about good and evil/You can’t tell which is which.” That emphasis on consolation over surety defines Bare Bones, and by the time “Somethin’ Grand,” the album’s closing lullaby, comes around, Peyroux seems to have made peace with her various heartaches. The product of that struggle is a batch of spooky, agnostic, delicately wrought songs, unsettling in their grace: The liquid imagery of “River of Tears” sets a eulogy for the aforementioned boozy father to Larry Goldings’ exquisite organ licks; “Our Lady of Pigalle,” Peyroux’s answer to Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” traces a pursued lady through the streets of Paris, her own Madonna-like purity impervious to the advances of whatever unsavory characters she meets. Lowlights remain: The borderline pornographic wah-guitar, plodding beat, and dithering wordplay of “You Can’t Do Me”—co-written with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker—is simply below Peyroux, and the brushstrokes and acoustic torpor of several songs (“Love and Treachery,” “Homeless Happiness”) leave the album sounding, well, a bit ossified in the middle. But on a disc where minimalism is equated with wisdom, one can’t expect too muscular a backbeat. “My body is like my father’s house/The sin of generations/Damn the bones that rattle/Faith is good enough,” Peyroux sings in “Damn the Circumstances.” These are the lines of a chanteuse who’s so honed her voodoo that she can read the meaning of life in a pile of bones.