Critic's Notebook: Barbra Streisand's 'Walls' Drags Trump — and Reminds the World of Her Artistic Powers

Russell James
Barbra Streisand

Streisand’s moody and effective new record takes pointed aim at the president, but its pleasures also stem from its lack of pretentiousness.

At the beginning of 2018, there were many things I didn’t imagine myself doing at the end of 2018. One of them is reviewing a Barbra Streisand record about Donald Trump and the hell-world we live in. Another is actually liking it.  

For Walls, her 36th (!) studio album and the first in over a dozen years to include this much original material, Babs returns with her target squarely set on Trump amid a wave of anti-Semitism and fascism both in America and abroad. To put a fine point on it: The whole thing is very timely.

Earlier this week, Streisand explained to The New York Times that the impetus for this record was sleepless nights. "I would lie awake at night with Trump's outrages running through my head,” she explained, “and I had to do another album for Columbia Records, so I thought, why not make an album about what's on my mind?"

And so one of our most cherished women entertainers digs in on the president — unmistakably, though never mentioning him by name — over a series of new originals like the Spanish-guitar-laden “What’s on My Mind” and “Don’t Lie to Me,” the sorrowful tone of which makes it play like a ballad about the end of the world. The song is radio-friendly, but doesn’t force a more youthful sound the way Madonna’s latest work, for example, often does; there are fun drum machines and other modern flourishes here, but no dubstep track (thankfully).

The whole record is crisply produced and avoids too much fussiness, even though it’s big and bombastic in many ways, made by a cadre of top-shelf producers. It hits just the right level of Streisandian musical-theater schmaltz, and I say that as high praise; there’s plenty of earnest melodrama to go around, from the empowerment anthem of “The Rain Will Fall” to the balladry of “Better Angels.”

The record works because everyone is wise enough to get out of the way of Babs’ voice, which, of course, has always been the main attraction. (She famously avoided a nose job to preserve that voice, a plot point in both her 1976 version of A Star Is Born and the current Lady Gaga version.) Amid the doom and gloom of songs like “Lady Liberty” and the title track “Walls,” Streisand has chosen more uplifting covers — like her mashup of “What a Wonderful World” and “Imagine,” as well as “What the World Needs Now” — to sprinkle some hope around, which is what this album ultimately seems to be about: finding some sort of reason to persevere during a period of cascading nightmares.

There haven’t been many reasons to be hopeful if you look around at the world. Cultural output has felt particularly dull — instead of urgent — since Trump was elected, with little in the way of great Trump-related art or satire except perhaps Y.G.’s “Fuck Donald Trump.” Is Walls going to be something we come back to down the road as a great Trump-era record? Maybe, maybe not. Will it help some folks get through their soul-crushing commute or through a divorce or just through their day? Probably, and that seems like its real purpose.

There used to be this idea (and perhaps people still buy into it) that art, like religion, could somehow save us in troubled times — that albums like Green Day’s American Idiot could have a real effect on our culture, which in turn would have an effect on politics. But that idea has increasingly lost currency. Part of the reason Walls works is that it — for all its grandiosity — doesn’t feel pretentious enough to think it will change the world. It’s more of a big, Streisandian sigh.

On the bright side, we can probably take some comfort in assuming that Trump will hate this record, and that it must drive him up the wall that Barbra Streisand still has way more power in Hollywood than he ever will.

The record ends with “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a song originally released at the beginning of the Great Depression before getting introduced into Babs’ repertoire in the ’60s. It’s a fitting — if unintentionally bleak — closer to this micro-opera, a sort of eulogy for the planet, unless we figure out a way to fight fascism and humanity-ending climate catastrophes.

Walls may not accomplish anything of any real political import, but it will almost definitely serve as a good artifact to help convey to future generations how it felt to be churned through yet another never-ending year of news somehow worse than the previous one.

And, hey, in the meantime, at least we get some new Streisand songs.