Some 51 years ago, give or take a day or three, Bobbie Gentry released The Delta Sweete (those swinging sixties!), a concept album about growing up "dirt poor" in the Mississippi Delta. She was then a hot ticket having scored a huge hit in 1967 with Ode to Billie Joe, a vivid story-song that continues to generate debate as to its meaning.
But her ambivalent nod to her past fell on mostly deaf ears; the album barely made a ripple. Edited versions would resurface on both sides of the Atlantic in the following years, again without gaining much traction.
Gentry herself made little headway throughout the 1970s before calling it a day in 1978. She has kept her word; now 76, not a peep has been heard from her since. This, however, is no rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Gentry, a philosophy student before stardom called, amassed a tidy sum to tide her over, plus Ode to Billie Joe must provide regular royalty top-ups, even in these digital disrupted days.
Fast forward to 2013 a Hidden Treasures feature in the Guardian, written by music writer Dorian Lynskey, pronounced it his long-lost masterpiece. American Indie band Mercury Rev agreed and have "revisited" the album with an impressive line-up of women singers.
The original album features 12 tracks, as does the "revisited" collection, but Mercury Rev have scrapped Doug Kershaw's Louisiana Man – one of four covers – to allow Lucinda Williams's dark southern sensibility feast on the quotidian detail of Ode to Billie Joe.
Notwithstanding her typically gritty performance, it's a strange decision to close the album with it as the track simply doesn't belong. In the original album Courtyard was the final track with Gentry assessing her life by questioning how far she had come: "Patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all that I'm living for…"
There are other issues. The singers, ranging from Norah Jones to Beth Orton, with honourable mentions for Hope Sandoval, Margo Price, Susanne Sundfor and Phoebe Bridgers, all put in a decent shift. But they are not always best served by elaborate spatial arrangements that lack the earthiness and grit of the 1968 model. Gentry's original, available on Spotify, pulses with chugging guitars, funky bass lines, punchy brass, sweeping strings, found sounds and a strong sense of place. Of course, it is of its time and there are stylistic choices that have not weathered well and the recording can sound clunky, but her powerful sultry voice remains a constant.
The "revisited" collection can seem uneven and distant by comparison. Carice Van Houten, Laetitia Sadier and, to a lesser extent, Rachel Goswell, don't inhabit the songs with the sort of conviction that Sandoval or Price bring to, respectively, Big Boss Man and Sermon. Bridgers also affects a beguiling spectral quality in Jessye 'Lisabeth despite the silliness of the faux Elizabethan language, which was, again, very current in the late 1960s.
These varying performances are in contrast to Gentry's consistent voice which knits the original album together. Mercury Rev, for their part, seek to use different layered moody settings to convey a sense of mystery and unease, updating the mostly swamp-rock and country gospel of the original with a more textured sound that often (eg Sadier's Mornin' Glory and Marissa Nadler's Refractions) leans on a 1960s pop aesthetic.
Still, it is a fascinating project, marshalling 12 highly individual voices to dramatically reimagine a deeply personal album while retaining something of its cohesion and meaning. And in doing so, Mercury Rev validate and celebrate Bobbie Gentry’s artistic bravery 51 years on.