Barbra Streisand, Walls, review: 'If Andrew Lloyd Webber staged a riot'

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Barbra Streisand - Walls
Barbra Streisand - Walls Credit: Russell James/Columbia Records

Barbra Streisand has made a protest album. This is not a career move anyone might have reasonably expected from a 76-year-old showbiz titan whose most recent release (2016's Encore) was a collection of starry duets of Broadway show tunes.

Yet you can banish thoughts of the great diva storming the barricades clutching a megaphone and a battered guitar. Streisand addresses the ills of the world in her own inimitable fashion. Walls, surely the first protest album to offer thanks to the artist's hairstylist and manicurist in the production credits, may well be the most gushing, mellifluous, lushly orchestrated political record ever made. It is like a riot staged by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

If the title were not a big enough clue as to the source of Streisand's ire, then try these lyrics from The Rain Will Fall: "You can tell one lie a thousand times/ But that doesn't make it real/ It's a thundercloud of alibis/ That empty words cannot conceal." Although never mentioned by name, President Trump looms large over lyrics that also insist that "Facts are fake/ And friends are foes/ And how the story ends nobody knows."

Of the seven original songs here, three are co-credited to Streisand, marking a long-overdue return to songwriting for a woman who has received some of the highest accolades for her compositions in the past (winning an Oscar for Evergreen, the theme from the 1976 version of A Star Is Born). Every track offers carefully articulated dismay at some aspect of the current state of the union: Lady Liberty by Desmond Child evokes the spirit of Emma Lazarus's Statue of Liberty sonnet, The New Colossus; Better Angels quotes from Lincoln's 1861 inaugural address.

Among a smattering of cover versions is a sumptuous version of Bernstein and Lerner's Take Care of This House (from the 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), in which the White House represents the nation's soul.

Barbra Streisand - Walls Credit: Barbra Streisand - Walls/Columbia Records

The title track is an intricate orchestral ballad delivered with such passionate conviction that it makes banality sound like profundity. "In every city and every town/ We would have a better day if all the walls came tumbling down," Streisand emotes, although I am not convinced she has really thought through the logic of that proposition.

A staggering medley of John Lennon's Imagine and Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World evokes the jaw-dropping spirit of the project, an utterly bonkers mix of saccharine sentimentality, righteous anger and smooth easy-listening.

Barbra Streisand - Walls Credit: Russell James/Columbia Records

Yet the sheer dynamic range of Streisand's singing remains consistently astonishing as she shifts from breathy intimacy to towering exaltation, summoning up the kind of bravura high notes that have been bringing her audiences to their feet for decades. Whatever your political convictions, it is impressive to see a veteran superstar doing something to challenge and potentially alienate listeners.

Streisand's 36th album is at once an overblown, schmaltzy epic, and a bold rallying cry that has the courage of its convictions. You won't know whether to cringe or cheer.