Demureness has rarely been k.d. lang's style, so it isn't surprising that when she calls her new album All You Can Eat (Warner Bros.), she doesn't mean the local buffet-style family restaurant. ''I have brought myself before you/Nakedly awaiting your O.K.,'' she swoons, later referring to ''this creature of god that lies before me.'' Ten meditations on unrequited desire, courtship, rejection, and sex, All You Can Eat is both the most brazen and conventional album she's ever made, and one of her best.
With each new album, lang has gradually toned down the often cloying cowpunk giddiness of her early work. That course continues with Eat, a sober album that musically and lyrically picks up where Ingénue's hit ''Constant Craving'' left off. The songs are a series of pleas to a lover to allow our tortured chanteuse into her life, each one highlighting varying degrees of optimism, confusion, and bleakness. ''How bad could it be/If you amuse yourself with me?'' lang asks slyly in ''Sexuality,'' one of several songs in which she pleads for her would-be lover's acceptance. Elsewhere she sounds torn up: ''Maybe I am crazy, maybe I'm confused, maybe I've misconstrued, maybe I love you,'' she ponders in ''Maybe.'' In ''Acquiesce,'' she's troubled by ''these immoral questions'' of an affair. And more often than not, she places her lover on an impossibly high pedestal: ''I'm all right if you're O.K.,'' she sings in her ode to co-dependency, ''you're O.K.''
Despite its heightened sense of in-heat longing, All You Can Eat (produced with longtime collaborator and guitarist Ben Mink) is not an especially steamy record. In fact, the music that accompanies these lovesick sentiments is, on first listening, bland and ordinary. The French-café accordions of Ingénue are absent, the steel guitars and big-throated twang of her early work long gone. The arrangements are plaintive and intimate, with beats that rarely stray beyond mid-tempo, electric pianos that act like comfy cushions (''This,'' for instance, recalls the Motels hit ''Only the Lonely''), and the occasional wash of strings that are classy but not stultifying. The music simmers over a low fire rather than cooking at full flame; it's as easy to lose yourself in it as lang does in her own romantic dolor.
But what seems uneventful becomes, after several plays, deep and rich. The consistency of the music lends the album a unifying tone rarely heard in today's grab-bag production approaches. Lang herself sings nearly every song in the same languid, love-struck swoon, with subtle shadings of sorrow or hope. She avoids show-off high notes, letting the quiet side of her vocal cords speak volumes. Again, this is a positive step. On albums like Absolute Torch and Twang, lang's vocal gymnastics threatened to transform her into the Mariah Carey of the New Traditionalist country.
Overall, both the singer and the songs sound almost stymied by unfulfilled passion, and that state of mind perfectly suits the album's central subject. Love, particularly unrequited, frequently raises as many questions as it answers, often leaving its victim feeling benumbed and aching. Throughout All You Can Eat, lang sounds enraptured and self-doubting as a result of her predicament, but never suicidal. If anything, she seems to treat the sensation as something in which to revel, a druggy high that, she realizes all too well, has its eventual comedown.
Of course, it should be no surprise to anybody that the love lang is pining for isn't heterosexual. Her most up-front odes to gay sexuality, the songs are dotted with references to a lover who is clearly a woman ''The touch of the sun was caressing her skin,'' lang sings in ''World of Love,'' which, with its chipper string section, is one of the record's few relatively upbeat numbers. As with Boy George's new Cheapness and Beauty, it's one more major step forward for the representation of gay culture in pop music. The no-big-deal forthrightness of its lyrics only reinforces the idea that love of any gender is truly universal.
As on Ingénue, which closed with ''Constant Craving,'' All You Can Eat ends with its strongest, most striking song, ''I Want It All.'' The music glides along, with lang vacillating between heartache and romantic fulfillment: ''All of the pleasures, all of the pain/All I am losing, all that I gain.'' Then, singing the title phrase in the final chorus (''I'll take whatever you can give me/But I want it all''), her voice finally leaps into the stratosphere, unleashing some of the pent-up passion she's held in check during the rest of the album. The lusty way she belts out that line reveals that lang may have lost herself in the travails of the heart, but she hasn't lost her musical way in the process. A