Physical (Deluxe Edition) [2021 Remaster]
Olivia Newton-John’s musical career took a major turn in 1981. Physical saw the Aussie movie star and singer embrace both a new image and a more pop-oriented sound compared to the previous year’s Xanadu soundtrack—and the world took notice. Haloed in a bright white sweatband on the album cover, Newton-John fully eschews her earlier focus on country music, instead showcasing the playful versatility of her voice over synth-laced dance pop and soft rock. That risk paid off handsomely, with the title track topping the US chart for 10 straight weeks. Complete with a winking music video, “Physical” starts slow and somewhat coy before launching into a concise earworm chorus that celebrates the joy found in touching (“Let me hear your body talk”). A lighthearted song that also celebrates personal agency for women in the realm of courtship, that worldwide hit added new layers to the star’s clean-cut image. Newton-John’s newfound sexual frankness is also apparent in the power ballad “Stranger’s Touch” and the soulful “Love Make Me Strong.” Other themes emerge as well, with album closer “The Promise (The Dolphin Song)” introducing the passion for environmentalism that would come to define the singer’s philanthropic work alongside her extensive activism around breast cancer. She chose her collaborators well here, with producer and repeat co-writer John Farrar playing the bulk of the guitar and bass—though Toto’s Steve Lukather plays the sultry guitar solo on “Physical.” Film composer Michael Boddicker is responsible for many of the assorted synthesizers, and the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb co-penned the romantic standout “Carried Away.” Neatly echoing Newton-John’s transformation from good girl to edgier woman over the course of 1978’s film adaptation of Grease, the more mature Physical remains the pinnacle of her solo output. It also helped to confirm the budding 1980s as a decade ruled by bouncy yet assertive synth-pop, as well as forecasting later Aussie exports such as Kylie Minogue.