Chinese-Maori singer-songwriter delivers album of eerie beauty
In New Zealand, where she grew up, the 26-year-old Bic Runga is bigger than Madonna, breaks bread with the Prime Minister, and felt compelled to leave the peninsula and move to Paris because she got sick of seeing herself in the papers. Her debut album, 1998’s Drive, was the biggest-selling in NZ history (Crowded who?). Beautiful Collision, the follow-up, has already trounced it, having spent 52 weeks at No 1. The only thing stopping Runga from repeating this success elsewhere thus far has been, as she puts it, “the paralysing distance” between her homeland and the rest of the world. Now that she’s in Europe, well, watch out Dido.
Don’t worry, Runga is only superficially Dido-esque. Despite being one of the loveliest collections of songs in recent memory, there are no facile quandaries about “bf” here. Through nuance and shade, you can tell Runga reads more Elizabeth Smart than Helen Fielding. Backstage at a Blondie gig in London, she took exception to something this reviewer said and whacked him about the head. Would Dido do that? Probably not. Beautiful Collision is lovely, but it’s a loveliness that, at a guess, conceals trauma and neurosis. Radio 2 will love it. So will xfm. Even “A Day Like That” and “Honest Goodbyes”, which are in waltz time. Runga describes the record as “whimsical”, but there is something unsettling about these fragrant reveries. They catch you off guard. Think of them as the missing link between Julee Cruise and Julie Andrews. It’s like being sung to by the girl in the attic. Songs such as “She Left On A Monday” and “Counting The Days” are deceptively, delicately cutting. They’re not lullabies, they’re lullabites.
Runga wrote all the music and words on Beautiful Collision, produced and arranged it all, played everything from piano and guitar to drums and dobro. Only Coldplay’s engineer, Michael Brauer, and the odd stray male like Neil Finn (vocals on “Something Good” and “Listening For The Weather”) and Joey Waronker (occasional “drum sounds”) shatter the mood of solitary female yearning. In fact, the only real sorethumb moment is the grunge-lite of “Good Morning Baby”, a duet with Dan Wilson of Semisonic. The rest is unashamedly, exquisitely MOR-ish. These kisses feel like hits.