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‘Cliff With Strings’ Review: Cliff Richard Finds New Possibilities With Old Classics
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Cliff With Strings’ Review: Cliff Richard Finds New Possibilities With Old Classics

With serious artistry – and a few surprises – ‘Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life’ brings a fresh perspective to Cliff Richard’s classic songs.

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There are numerous options for the classic artist when it comes to refreshing catalogue material. The simplest is repackaging their best moments as a Greatest Hits collection, perhaps adding a new song or two to keep things contemporary. They could also hand their master tapes to a remixer and watch as past gems are burnished into club-friendly dance tunes that find a new audience. They could re-record hit singles and personal favourites under the guidance of trendy producers, or deliver them as duets with stars from younger generations, affording these kids an audience they would be unlikely to reach for years while giving the mature icon the opportunity to connect with new fans. But by far the most challenging – and most rewarding, when they pull it off – is to place their original work in an entirely different but sympathetic context. Cliff Richard, that most lasting of British pop icons, has chosen the latter path for Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life. His follow-up to 2022’s Christmas With Cliff, it’s an album that somehow manages to warm hearts that love the familiar while pleasing ears that seek something new.

Listen to ‘Cliff With Strings’ here.

A natural choice

Orchestral settings come naturally to Cliff. He found fame in an era when rock rebellion was not a lasting career option: properly managed singers were encouraged to seek out mainstream opportunities. As a result, in the early 60s Cliff made records that featured orchestras, yet they still sounded entirely youthful and fresh; think of those vibrant, almost icy-sounding strings that gave a big sound to The Young Ones, for example, or the harps and violins which adorned his touching interpretation of It’s All In The Game.

Cliff sometimes returned to an orchestral sound as his career progressed, occasionally on full-blown album projects such as Dressed For The Occasion, created at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1982. But placing his original vocals in a new orchestrated context, as he does on Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life, is a novel adventure for the singer. He took it on with considerable relish, carefully selecting songs from across his unique career not only for their suitability for such treatment, but because he felt they deserved greater exposure against some of the more obvious contenders among the best Cliff Richard songs. But fear not: this is not a “bet you’ve never heard this one” project; there are smash hits aplenty on Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life.

Radical reworks with no short cuts

Longtime Cliff Richard fans might be surprised by just how simpatico these songs are with their elegant new framework. Cliff With Strings covers everything from his shimmering electropop marvel Wired For Sound to Summer Holiday. There’s Marmaduke, an anti-war protest song originally issued as the B-side to 1988’s Christmas No.1, Mistletoe And Wine, and the late-70s pop peak of We Don’t Talk Anymore also receives the orchestral treatment with considerable grace.

Great songs will thrive in almost any context, and Cliff’s original vocal delivery ensures that each of these songs works when refurbished with strings and subtle rhythmic and instrumental shifts. Wired With Sound benefits from a beat that offers an indefinable hint of Latin dance and an uplifting soul clap. Summer Holiday takes on an acoustic strumming feel that purrs along, the strings very much in a supporting role while a horn section swings out front. This is not a case of “just chuck a load of strings on it”. Cliff doesn’t go in for short cuts. Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life mostly offers radical reworks.

Cosy, not slushy

Some songs don’t conform to what you might expect but are still absolute stunners. My Kinda Life itself, a chunky, rocking Top 20 hit in 1977, is not awash in a sea of strings. Instead it gains a highly credible country foundation, sizzling fiddle sparring with rockabilly guitar licks. It’s not hard to imagine a bar full of line dancers in Tennessee enjoying every moment; somebody should hand it to a Nashville promotion man and watch it soar. My Kinda Life wasn’t the most obvious candidate for a strings project, but it’s an imaginative and entirely successful one.

There’s also some low-hanging fruit. It would be crazy if some of Cliff’s cosier material didn’t have a part to play here. Opening song The Best Of Me is an absolute must for this album, but don’t go thinking the strings overwhelm Cliff’s warm, precisely phrased vocal, which keeps the song’s all-grown-up personality at the forefront rather than losing it in slushiness. Peace In Our Time, released six years later, in 1993, loses some its electronic bubbliness in favour of orchestration, but Cliff’s delivery again keeps the song vitally on-message.

A tribute to Olivia Newton-John

Cliff has also made a point of including the alluring Suddenly, the love theme from Xanadu, recorded with Olivia Newton-John, who passed away in 2022. Strings are often regarded as syrupy sweetening to pop records; here, however, they bring the song up to date, replacing some of the original’s early-80s production motifs. Both singers come over beautifully on this fully refreshed duet, their vocals recorded live in 2015 for Cliff’s 75th birthday. It’s a fitting tribute to Olivia, one of Cliff’s dearest friends.

Elsewhere, there are versions of Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For you, not a song Cliff is usually associated with, but one which entirely suits his voice. The Young Ones and Living Doll represent his early years, and there’s a spine-tingling cut of Carrie, in which the strings add a sting of chilly mystery, expertly scored by Chris Walden (Cher, Mary J Blige, Elvis Costello).

Reimagined without reservations

All albums of makeovers face a particular problem: you’re hearing the familiar in an unfamiliar setting. Fans may prefer the original versions simply because that’s how they’ve always heard and loved them. But Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life is not an exercise in spreading pre-loved material further and more thinly: it’s stretching the limits of these songs, looking for – and finding – extra possibilities within them.

The track that provides half the album’s title is not the only song which is arguably superior in this context. There is proper creativity at work here, and Cliff’s selections are as imaginative as they are commercially astute. Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life can be enjoyed without reservations – despite having strings attached.

Buy ‘Cliff With Strings: My Kinda Life’ on blue vinyl.

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