Susanna Hoffs: When You’re A Boy

When You're A Boy

Underrated singer/songstress Susanna Hoffs released her first solo debut twenty-seven years ago today, January 29, 1991. While the singles failed to chart, When You’re A Boy cracked the Billboard Top 100, cresting at 83. I have to wonder if its lack of commercial performance is due to a public perception that this is an ex-Bangle’s solo record; in truth, this is much further from The Bangles: Different Light than could be reasonably expected, more mature, less pop, more gravitas, less bubblegum.

Upon revisiting the album, given the time of its release, I’d probably characterize it as Aimee Mann meets Tanya Donelly meets Elvis Costello. The lyrics aren’t quite as caustic and clever as Aimee and Elvis, the music not quite as major-key pop as Donelly, but overall the ingredients are there. The gift for understated melody is where the influences and similarities shine through.

Hoffs’s primary collaborator on the album is uber-producer David Kahne, who not only produced, but mixed, arranged, and played keyboards on the album, even co-writing a handful of the songs. Even so, the feel is that this is Susanna’s album. Extensively mid-tempo, there are a wistfulness and emotion in her vocal delivery that carry the album beyond the mostly by-the-numbers pop/rock arrangement. There’s nothing bad about the musical choices made here by Kahne, but there is nothing adventurous or innovative, either.

The songs co-written by contemporaries such as Hatfield (“That’s Why Girls Cry”) and Cyndi Lauper (“Unconditional Love”) stand out as highlights on an album full of highlights. Susanna herself has co-writing credits on fewer than half of the album tracks, making this a truly collaborative effort. But whether it was Hoffs or Kahne making the song-selections, there’s not a single cut that seems out of place or which brings down the overall quality and enjoyment of the record.

The LP is predominantly mid-tempo, slowing to a ballad pace on a couple numbers, ramping up to Bangles-reminiscent rock temp on one or two others. This puts the focus far more on Hoffs’s vocals, which serves the album very well. Small missteps like the Hammond-driven “It’s Lonely Out Here” – with it’s pulsing, urgent verses and harmonizing backing vocals reminiscent of her prior band – could have benefitted from a scaled back production that dropped the rock drumming and guitars in favor of something more subdued that kept Susanna’s vocals at the fore. It’s not a bad song, but it feels cluttered.

And despite small qualms like the one cited above, I wholeheartedly recommend this record if you missed it the first time around. Frankly, it’s worth the price of admission for her cover of Bowie‘s “Boys Keep Swinging” (which is the reason I bought the disc in the first place), from which the project takes its title, but it is a very well executed debut album throughout and one which has surprising staying power nearly thirty years later.

One thought on “Susanna Hoffs: When You’re A Boy

  1. I was a big fan of “My Side of the Bed”. The rest of the album is good. An amazing list of musicians on this album, John Entwistle of the Who, Randy Jackson, Jim Keltner, Juliana Hatfield, and Donovan! Her next solo album was pretty good too with the cover of the Lightning Seeds, “All I Want” being the standout. Also some of her own collaborations and covers of “To Sir WIth Love” and “Stuck in the Middle With You”. Always my favorite Bangle, great voice.

    Liked by 2 people

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