We’re always in the market for a new diva — another great voice or stylish trendsetter that teases the gay sensibility and makes us pledge allegiance. In 2011, when New Zealand singer Kimbra unleashed her debut Vows, we thought we’d found our latest crush. (Gotye certainly did; he featured her on his Grammy-winning global smash “Somebody That I Used to Know.”) Her follow-up, The Golden Echo, was a more pop-friendly effort though it stalled on the U.S. charts.
The new Kimbra album Primal Heart is an attempted reversal of fortune and consolidation of her standing as a front-rank song stylist. After relocating to New York from L.A., she’s reaching deeply to pull the best from herself.
“Each of the songs speaks to something that lives in the primal heart,” she has said, “what I believe is the raw material of a human being. Those things are ambition, capacity for love, transcendence, but also greed and ego. That’s the paradox. I’m always writing about duality.”
The record takes its title from the pre-release single “Human,” the perfect amalgamation of modern beats and her love of jazz, yet it reveals a shift in approach from an elastic pop synthesizer to a more forthright songwriter.
“I’d like to think this album is me sitting down and taking the listener’s hand, looking them directly in the eye and telling them my story,” Kimbra says.
Part of the story she shares with us is about sexual assault on the graceful, soulful “Everybody Knows”; another part is about ambition and empowerment (“Top of the World”). There is love and loss, responsibility and complicity.
Ultimately, all of this leads to the straightforward simplicity of the elegant ballad “Version of Me” wherein the woman born Kimbra Lee Johnson admits “there’s a better version of me / stay for the person I will be.”
Most of our divas are Teflon-tough (Lady Gaga, Madonna, Grace Jones), but Kimbra joins the ranks of those gay icons that parlayed their vulnerability into a shared experience of becoming (Judy Garland, the young Barbra Streisand). She’s a work in progress, like you and me, and her primal heart beats loudly for us all.