The version of Odyssey I'm revieweing is the original one with the photo of Hayley on the seashore, but it's basically the same album as this one. There are a couple of track changes, but all the ones I've referred to are present on this version. The record company has an annoying habit of releasing different versions of the same album to make a new album sale for the sake of a couple of extra songs.
This is Hayley Westenra's most accomplished album so far. Her previous international album, Pure, showed a singer with real talent but recorded too early in her career, with expressiveness and diction insufficiently developed. Both faults are magnificently corrected on Odyssey, with Hayley singing with subtlety and richness and a warm clarity that brings the songs alive and brings her individual qualities over very strongly.
The choice of songs works very well, and the arrangements are lush without being overdone. In particular the production uses exactly the right amount of reverb to bring warmth without losing clarity, and because of that the instrumentation can be sparing enough to focus on individual instrument sounds and to provide a real sense of climax by subtle use of dynamics. The value of this becomes clear when contrasts are made with the much weaker follow-up album Treasure.
I'm not going to discuss every track, but merely note some highlights.
The opening song (on the original version of this album), Prayer, is quite simply stunning. Having heard the Pure album I really wasn't expecting anything this beautiful and powerful. I actually heard it for the first time when I played a copy of the CD that Hayley had very kindly signed as a present for my mother. I played it to check it was ok, and also because I was a little curious to see if the potential of the singer on Pure had blossomed. It certainly had, and I bought another copy of Odyssey for myself, which I certainly hadn't been expecting to do.
Everything about Prayer is perfect - Hayley's voice and expression, the arrangement, the production. This is a singer who can open up vistas of feeling with a single, carefully placed word or a perfectly phrased line. It's clear from this song what Hayley is capable of, given the right songs and the right arrangements and production.
There are many more highlights - Never Saw Blue, Both Sides Now (Hayley makes this song her own, which is no mean feat) - but special mention needs to be given to What You Never Know. Hayley is given a co-credit as a writer for this song, which is a little bit misleading. The song already existed and had been recorded before Hayley sang it, which puts Hayley in a bad light when people discover that fact. The fault is with the people who compiled the CD booklet, of course, and not with Hayley herself, but because she's the artist it reflects on her. A little more care along the lines of "With additions by Hayley Westenra" might have looked a lot better. But the important thing is, this little problem tends to obscure just what Hayley achieved with her addition. Quite simply, she totally altered the meaning of the song with a simple addition and took it into wholly new territory. As it stands, it isn't much of a song, but by adding a section around the inspired line "I'm falling for you" she changed the song into a much more complex analysis of conflicting emotions. What the person addressed will never know is the singer's hidden love, which she fears will be emotionally painful for the person she loves. That opens up whole areas of emotion, transforming Hayley's entire performance into an expression of mixed love, uncertainty and vulnerability. It's a stroke of genius, quite simply.
In my review of Treasure, the album that followed Odyssey, I expressed the view that Hayley is a person with great talent, held back by record company policies that keep her in the narrow confines of a particular style and range of appeal. She could transcend those limitations without losing most of her existing fan-base, keep the people who loved Odyssey but were disappointed by Treasure, and add many new people who don't listen to her at all because of the kind of songs she's known for singing. Odyssey is a glimpse of what Hayley can do. There could be so much more, and I strongly hope she'll be able to develop her undoubted talents without being sidetracked. She deserves respect from people who currently write her off as a naff singer for the granny market. And the interesting thing is, my mother, who should be part of that narrow market, agrees with this assessment. She said exactly the same things to me without knowing my views on the subject. I'm certainly glad it was this album Hayley signed for her. Thank you Hayley.