If you don’t know who Audra McDonald is, but appreciate vocal music, now’s the time to find out. The angelic lyric soprano has just released her fourth and most accessible solo album, “Build a Bridge,” filling it with covers of songs by mainstream pop songwriters like Bacharach, Costello, Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman, and John Mayer.
Her previous albums mostly contain songs by musical theater composers, so her fan base consists mostly of people who have the soundtrack from “A Chorus Line” on their iPods. Unafraid of a little Stravinskyian polyphony, many of McDonald’s songs aren’t exactly user-friendly to those who like straightforward melodies.
Here she shines brightest when performing the work of Adam Guettel, a musically progressive Broadway composer. He provides the title track, which relates an emotional gulf in a relationship as a river, mirroring the widening break by increasing harmonic intricacy.
On “Build a Bridge,” McDonald has selected songs that portray complicated emotional states, showing off her acting as well as singing talent.
She probes the depths of “Dividing Day,” a Guettel masterpiece from his recent Broadway musical, “The Light in the Piazza,” adding anger to the melancholy of Tony-winner Victoria Clark’s original interpretation. The song features jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who balances harmonic tension and melodic release, an appropriately unsettling touch to a song that chronicles a loveless marriage: “I can see the winter in your eyes, telling me, / ‘Go now, we did it, you curtsied, I bowed. / We are together, but no more love, / No more love allowed.’ ”
Every song on “Build a Bridge” resonates with the vocal intensity poured into “Dividing Day.” Unfortunately, some of the pop songwriters represented on the album don’t provide McDonald with material as emotionally rich as Guettel does, making her inspired recreations of John Mayer’s facile “My Stupid Mouth” and Neil Young’s boring “My Heart” seem vapid in comparison.
But most of the pop isn’t bathos. McDonald covers a pair of songs by ’70s songwriter Laura Nyro (“To a Child” and “Tom Cat Goodbye”) and a tango by Rufus Wainwright (“Damned Ladies”), none of which feel like a waste of McDonald’s talent.
The best songs on the album, like Guettel’s contributions, are melancholy ballads like “Cradle and All,” a poignant reflection on a mother’s lost time with her child and husband, co-written by Broadway composer Ricky Ian Gordon and actress Jessica Molaskey.
Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” originally written for Kermit the Frog, ironically falls into the ballad category as well. While this track may seem like a pander on an album built for mainstream acceptance, it actually showcases McDonald’s versatility, coming off as a meditation about self-acceptance. Time will tell if she crosses over successfully, but it’s hard to imagine a better album to bring her to the masses.
—Reviewer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at email@example.com.