The Awesome Album Milla Jovovich Made When She Was 16

So far in this series dedicated to forgotten vanity projects past, we’ve addressed a pretty-good album by Ian McShane and an awful one by Corey Feldman. Now it’s time for our first unabashed success. Milla Jovovich’s The Divine Comedy, an acoustic art-rock timepiece heavily influenced by the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush, is a vanity project, but it’s one that entirely deserves a place in your collection.

But to put the album in its proper context, we’ll have to explore a period in our history we might otherwise prefer to forget: mainstream pop culture of the mid-90s. The Divine Comedy came out in 1994, and so herein you will be faced with names like “Toad the Wet Sprocket,” “Harry Dean Stanton” and “David Hasselhoff.” If you can bear it, though, you’ll get to know a surprisingly good album by this model turned actress turned—yep, she’s earned it—singer.

THE SONGS: One traditional folk song from Jovovich’s native Ukraine and ten originals, based on poems she wrote. If it were 1994, we could compare it to Dead Can Dance or Tori Amos or Rusted Root; today, we’d compare it to Lady Antebellum or Taylor Swift, which certainly says something about something. (Aside from the synths, which make it sound a little like an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.) Mandolins, minor keys, accordions, swooping melodies, that sort of thing. Up the schmatlz by 75% and you’d get “My Heart Will Go On.”

THE PACKAGING: The cover painting, created for the album by a Russian artist, was what inspired the album’s title rather than the other way around. It was a nice touch for Jovovich to take that image and come up with “The Divine Comedy.” Without it, the painting—a naked brunette reaching up to illuminated angels while a snake and various murky demons attempt to drag her down—could easily come off like the wall mural on some oligarch’s mansion. Instead, its faux-Renaissance affectations seem almost literary. (Also, naked lady!) In the middle of the booklet is a full-length black-and-white picture of Jovovich dressed in all black, wearing low-top Cons and a midriff-baring top while carrying a mandolin. (1994!)

DID IT SELL? Hard numbers aren’t easy to come by; the album never charted, but in those days of quintuple-platinum blockbusters a moderate-selling release wouldn’t necessarily show up on Billboard’s radar. It was promoted heavily, though, with an official video and appearances on “Alternative Nation” and Conan O’Brien.

CURRENT AVAILABILITY: Unlike the other albums addressed in this column so far, it was easier to download Jovovich’s album than it was to buy it. Jovovich has a large and robust fan community, and she continues to release music and perform publicly, though she hasn’t put out an official album since this one.

SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: In an era when the Butthole Surfers could get a major-label deal, so could Jovovich. In 1988, when she was only 13, she was signed to SBK, an imprint of EMI that also released albums (and cassingles) by Vanilla Ice and Technotronic. They wanted to build a dance-pop album around her, but Jovovich balked. (In one interview she alludes to some demos from this period, which means that, somewhere out there, Milla Jovovich dance-pop songs from 1988 may exist.) Three years later, EMI/SBK gave her free reign to produce an album based around her poetry (a sentence that, in 2012, reads more like science fiction than history), and it was released two and a half years later.

MOST HILARIOUS QUOTE FROM AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE ALBUM: “There have been many reviews out there about her. Some I believe are extremely harsh and come from a sad place of people being close minded. Her voice is melodic, her words haunting and melody enticing. Coming from someone who usually listens to the likes of Elvis, Nine Inch Nails, Cat Stevens, Type O Negative and such I set my expectations entirely too low.”

WHEN SHE MADE IT: The Divine Comedy was released three years before The Fifth Element, and as such Jovovich was more of a b- or even c-list star at the time. After moving to Los Angeles from the Soviet Union, Jovovich’s actress mother (who had divorced Milla’s father soon after the move, and for good reason, it sounds like) had begun to groom her for stardom, enrolling her in acting school. In 1987, at the age of 12, she would have her first magazine cover as a model (see above), on an adult Italian rag called Lei, looking just terrifyingly young. She followed the model path into movies, reprising Brooke Shields’ role in the sequel to Blue Lagoon, a performance for which she earned a Razzie. She was supposed to have a larger role in Dazed and Confused—that’s her on the left in the poster—but spoke only a single word in the movie, though you can hear her sing a bit of the first track off Divine Comedy, “The Alien Song.” Though much of the contemporary press around the album’s release mentions Jovovich in relation to her roles in the Blue Lagoon sequel and as a child bride in Chaplin, Linklater’s film (which came out a year before Divine Comedy) is the more apropos point of departure. She played the girlfriend of Shawn Andrews, her boyfriend in real life, whom she would later briefly marry as a “fuck you” to her mom. Her experiences with the film were so negative that she quit making films for a couple years, not acting again until The Fifth Element in 1997. The deliberately non-commercial Divine Comedy cemented that rebellious, anti-corporate reputation she’d already stoked with her brooding, rebellious public image and the role in Dazed. This is around the point where Jovovich stops being a model or actress and starts being a cultural icon —precisely the image Luc Besson would draw on when casting Jovovich as Leeloo.

WHO MADE IT: Jovovich’s most notable co-writer on the album was a guy named Mark Holden. Later a judge on the first three seasons of “Australian Idol,” Holden’s early career was a sort of symbiosis between singing and TV appearances, and his hit songs are just as notable as his acting role and hosting gigs. He ended up writing a couple of hits for the Temptations in the 80s (including “Lady Soul,” whose hook sounds an awful lot like Justin Bieber’s “Baby”), then went on to produce David Hasselhoff’s mid-90s output and compose the theme for “Baywatch Nights.” (As one does.) Despite this almost entirely red-flaggy CV, he seems to have done well with Jovovich’s material, suggesting that, if nothing else, he’s good at working with the desires of the artist.

THE MUSIC: It’s good, especially (although not exclusively!) if you keep in mind she was 16 when this was recorded. Even if you don’t have audio where you’re reading this, just looking at the videos for “Gentleman Who Fell” can give you a good idea of the sound. The original version (above) was directed by Lisa Bonet and featured Harry Dean Stanton playing a violin and wrapping a small girl in gauze (not at the same time). Jovovich rejected it as too commercial (or something?) and instead produced a black-and-white clip that referenced Maya Deren’s landmark surrealist film Meshes of the Afternoon. She toured the album around, opening for Crash Test Dummies and Toad the Wet Sprocket.

It’s almost impossible to listen to the album without thinking of Kate Bush, but that’s OK: it’s hard to listen to lots of album from 1994 without thinking of Kate Bush. As someone who listened to a lot of Tori Amos in the 90s, this feels comfortable and familiar. If anything, it sounds like Amos’ third album, Boys for Pele, even though that wouldn’t come out until two years after The Divine Comedy was released. There are certainly moments when the level of pan flute makes you feel like you’re trapped in the back corner of a caftan store (you know, where they’re burning the incense), but once you get past that little time-shift, the album offers many pleasures. “Retro” can too easily mean revisiting things you’re already familiar with, but every landmark cultural object reflects and produces numerous similar-sounding works. Thus it’s easy to return to a sound you love while still experiencing the shock of the new, and if you’ve never heard The Divine Comedy before, you’re in for a treat.

Previously: Ian McShane’s From Both Sides Now and Corey Feldman’s Former Child Actor

Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.