Gaia: One Woman’s Journey

Olivia Newton-John

Festival, 1994

http://olivianewton-john.com

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/19/2021

Olivia Newton-John has been ossified into Sandy from Grease – a perpetually sunny, virginial schoolgirl who cooed the yearning ballad “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” While she was charismatic and appealing in that film, it overwhelmed her considerable talent. After Grease, she scored more radio hits, including the campy “Physical,” but so much of her was reduced her to a smiling bubblegum pop princess. It’s unfortunate because when given a chance and the right material, Newton-John is a gifted and inspired songstress. Her voice is gorgeous, evocative, with a hint of melancholy underneath its extravagant prettiness.

Because so much of Newton-John’s image is tied to Grease or “Physical,” it’s easy to underestimate her work. Gaia: One Woman’s Journey should convince listeners that Olivia Newton-John isn’t just a pretty songbird but a sensitive and skilled singer-songwriter. Inspired by her concern for environmental issues, social justice, as well as her bout with breast cancer and her father’s death and the death of her daughter’s close friend, Newton-John put together a wholly self-penned album. Though she occasionally co-wrote songs in her career, this was the first time in her carer in which she took on the writing duties solo. It’s an emotional, humane record with some really lovely moments. Though not a perfect record, it’s still a definitive entry in Olivia Newton-John’s (admittedly spotty) discography. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Given Newton-John’s affection for conservation concerns, the record has some world music accents and flecks of New Age, but essentially, it’s the kind of the MOR pop that she excels at. And though there are love songs, the record works best when the singer gives into her songwriting ambitions, whether she’s singing about the planet or peace. The title track is a noble attempt by Newton-John to condemn climate change with thoughtful lyrics written from the point of view of Mother Earth begging to be saved. The production is a bit cluttered and indulges in world music cliches, but Newton-John’s performance is very good – she really believes what she’s singing. Her worry for the planet continues with the brooding “Silent Ruin,” in which she laments the wasteful and ruinous disregard for the planet. Like “Gaia,” “Silent Ruin” starts with some corny nature sound effects, but quickly the mournful, orchestra takes over and the song becomes an affecting dirge. Another solid song, “Not Gonna Give Into It” is also marred by misguided production – this time, generic mid-90s Latin pop – but the lyrics are genuinely moving about perseverance and determination; and knowing the personal hell Newton-John went through during this time, it makes the song’s feelings of empowerment well-earned.

The best song on Gaia is the stunning, “Don’t Cut Me Down,” a shuffling pop ballad that mourns deforestation. Interestingly enough, though, Newton-John’s touching lyrics – clever in the use of metaphor – have made the song an allegorical anthem for the AIDS crisis. It was featured in the AIDS ensemble drama, It’s My Party, which Newton-John appeared in, thereby cementing her gay icon status. As with the rest of the songs on the record, the production is a bit too fussy, with an overuse of ambient guitar, but Newton-John’s sorrowful vocal work is exemplary.

Gaia was an important step in Olivia Newton-John’s career as it showed that she was far more resourceful an artist that given credit. ­­It’s an inconsistent record; the production is dated and can feel shallow and silly and the love songs are rather bland, but it shows moments of incredible artistry that should have been nurtured and encouraged. With strong producers and collaborators, Gaia could have been a classic, but it’s still a good look at an artist who is so much more than just Sandy from Grease.

Rating: B

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