Urban Contemporary, 2004
For a low-key singer with little fanfare to her name, apart from that scandal involving the father of her child, Gabrielle manages to emerge as UK’s most successful female singer since Dusty Springfield. I try not to be a fangirl, but it seems that Gabrielle really can’t do wrong where I am concerned. Play to Win is her most introspective work to date. Just like how “introspective” tends to be synonymous with “cringe-inducing kind of pretentious”, Play to Win comes really close, lyrically, to Des’ree’s territory. Gabrielle doesn’t want people to enjoy her music – she wants people to learn and be inspired by her words. Unfortunately, she makes a Hallmark card look like a work of elegant poetry with lines like “Do you have a vision? Do you have a goal? I’m watching you shrugging your shoulders, telling me you just don’t know…” (Ten Years Time).
Musically, however, the arrangement is sparse, often stripped down to basics, and the result is marvelous music. Tumbling Down, may not be inspiring, word-wise, and in fact, as a song inspired by the strife in Iraq, it can be on the pretentious side. But it is inspiring nonetheless, thanks to the soaring percussion in the back imitating a marching band as Gabrielle’s beautiful voice soars like a bird released from its cage at last. When she imbues such raw emotion into otherwise trite lines like “When the walls come tumbling down, and you’ve lost too much to count, will you feel you’ve won the fight?” This song is easily my favorite in the album and it’s appropriate as a closing track.
She stretches her range in the haunting ballad War of Two Minds, a song where she beseeches her lover for a truce for all the fighting that she is sick and tired of. Like other tracks, the lyrics of this song can be on the trite side, but it’s the delivery that counts. Resignation, exhaustion, and determination to overcome these emotions – they are all here in subtle shades that come together to create a beautiful landscape of a breaking heart. Even on richly soulful uptempo tracks like Picking Up the Pieces, Gabrielle can sing the most optimistic lines without making them seem asinine.
Most of the tracks like Stay the Same and Latchkey Kid don’t rock the formula too much where Gabrielle is concerned. In that sense, the tracks here are familiar territory to fans of Gabrielle. But as always, she sounds divine. She doesn’t have to come out with sob stories to make people understand that she is tormented and hurt, she just allows the rich nuances in her voice to do the storytelling. Instead of brooding over her past, she finds strength to move on and wants her listeners to learn what she learned. Mawkish rubbish, I can say, but when Gabrielle sings, she kills my cynicism – for the time being – makes me want to sing along with her. I don’t know how she does it but I’m enjoying myself too much to analyze things too much.