Sunday, 10 February 2013

Barbra STREISAND: Guilty

(#240: 8 November 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Guilty (Duet with Barry Gibb)/Woman In Love/Run Wild/Promises/The Love Inside/What Kind Of Fool (Duet with Barry Gibb)/Life Story/Never Give Up/Make It Like A Memory

What is it with Barbra Streisand and her need to snuggle up to tall, beardy men? At least Guilty does not feature hamfisted attempts by Barry Gibb to be Jim Morrison or Alice Cooper, but in all other senses it is the musical sequel to A Star Is Born - “Make It Like A Memory” indeed. This is also the third Streisand album I’ve had to write about in as many years and I have to come to the conclusion that Streisand, try as she might, cannot do pop. Pop music is beyond her ken. The singing of pop music involves taking the listener into your confidence, persuading you to believe in them. Whereas Streisand hectors her listener, demanding that she be believed.

I am not sure whether this represents much of an advance on Spirits Having Flown or her second Greatest Hits volume; in a lot of ways Guilty may signal a regression. At the time it must have felt like a clash of some sort of titans, Barbra and the Bee Gees, both intent on finding their own ways out of disco (Streisand having come off a US number one duet with Donna Summer), but the clash here feels more like an extended yawn of overcooked melancholy. Note the billing on the cover: Streisand, the surname alone, like Sinatra, or Olivier, or God. One’s credulity stretches as neatly as the white silk in which she and Gibb are dressed.

The Bee Gees let it be known that they were more than keen to work with Streisand; Streisand’s people read that and considered. Robert Stigwood was brought in for negotiations: well, he told Streisand, there are three Bee Gees, so they’ll want 75% of royalties. But they all sound the same, protested Streisand, how much would just one cost? So it was agreed that she would work with Barry alone, although the writing credits tell a different story; four of the nine songs (including “Woman In Love”) were co-written by Barry and Robin; the title song was co-written by Barry, Robin and Maurice; three songs were co-written by Barry with co-producer Albhy Galuten. Only “The Love Inside” was composed by Barry alone.

But there is another kind of temporality at work; both sides start off with a Streisand/Gibb duet, but while Barry is audibly very much in evidence throughout side one, hovering in the background or middleground, he essentially disappears from side two after “What Kind Of Fool.” And the album, which I suppose constitutes some kind of song cycle, follows this same path; a relationship that quickly goes wrong, with bitterness, recrimination, aloneness, and so forth.

What can it all mean; and, in late 1980, after what we’ve been through, who really cares? Maybe it’s a coupling of uncertain origin – the title track suggests it’s maybe not straight up – and they don’t agree, or they see other people, or they have “obligations,” or whatever…but the performances in particular don’t encourage me to want to find out more. Silken and, yes, smooth, performed by Premier League session players, the best anybody’s money could get…but it all sounds so empty, so glossily vacant, that one’s mind drifts to Steely Dan’s contemporaneous “Glamour Profession” (and Gaucho and Guilty have several players in common; maybe each record needs the other to make full sense) where the vacancy is brilliant enough to blind or obliterate the listener; such careful replicas of ebullience, such delicately-placed lines and changes, all to illustrate a story of superstar drug abuse and cocaine running, as firmly closed a door upon the past – and the seventies – as Joy Division’s “Decades,” and some of the saddest and profoundest “pop” music you are likely to hear.

A Streisand/Becker/Fagen collaboration would probably have been rendered unlistenable by the singer, always insisting on spelling out and projecting the minutest emotions of a song, as unlistenable in its own way as a Streisand/Chic hook-up would have been (think of the hysterical mess Streisand would have made of “I’m Coming Out” and you’ll see what I mean – both Diana Ross and Johnny Mathis, the latter of whom you may recall cut an as yet unreleased album with Chic in early 1981, knew better, and knew not to let their voices override the songs). But Guilty is a sad example of a performer being more or less unwilling to learn her collaborator’s language. Everything on it has to be filtered through the performer’s own Streisand-ness. It’s as if she were keen to prove what an inept actress she might be.

The title track works well enough, Gibb careful to restrain himself and therefore provide an adequate counterpoint to Streisand’s sparrow-like swoops. But the music is too upmarket, too seamless, to allow any notion of guilt or loneliness to bleed through.

I don’t think, however, that it’s the fault of Gibb’s songs, as such. He quickly recorded a set of demos for Guilty - ten songs in little over a week – and these eventually became available via iTunes in 2006. I have listened to his demo of “Woman In Love” and it is quite startling. He doesn’t bother to change the song’s gender, indeed sings it in his trademark falsetto which in this context sounds rather scary. Accompanied by just the keyboards and drum machines of Galuten and Blue Weaver, and his own guitar, Gibb somehow seems to get deeper into the song’s marrow than Streisand manages. Moreover, there is an air about Gibb’s performance that suggests that by 1980 the Bee Gees were sick of disco and were actively striving to get back to being the Bee Gees who were once capable of songs like “I Started A Joke” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” You can hear him trying, but, as with the rest of this record’s songs (of the ten songs demoed, “Never Give Up” does not appear, but “Carried Away” and “Secrets “ do, although these songs were ultimately given, respectively, to Olivia Newton-John and Elaine Paige), he doesn’t quite return there; too much has happened to too many people in the interim.

Likewise, the Streisand “Woman In Love” acts like nine-tenths of a knockout pop record while only being one-tenth as good as it might have been had, say, Agnetha Faltskog or Cher, or Olivia herself, sung it. The opening lyric may be regarded as one of the most desolate in all of pop, or, if you’re me, irritates with its clumsy BabelFish imagery (what does “Life is a moment in space” mean outside the context of a Carl Sagan documentary?). Yes, I understand what Streisand is trying to do here – stand up for the woman, maybe approaching middle age, who demands that her needs be taken seriously - but again it is the demanding that throws and turns me off. “It’s a RIGHT I de-FEND!” she proclaims, over and over again, and in the process sounding like Linda Lavin or Cheryl Ladd in the courtroom at the end of one of those dysfunctional TV movies. She has to play every scene like Scarlett O’Hara; nowhere throughout the song is there any evidence of her being needful or vulnerable or even particularly alone, but more another declaration that she is Barbra Streisand in love and that should be enough.

As a song, however, and despite its characteristic Gibb-erish lyric (“With you eternally mind/In love there is no measure of time” – so how come it’s “eternal”?), “Woman In Love” is far from bad, and neither is “Run Wild,” another ballad and a song of slightly detached regret that the one she loved, or thought she loved, cannot really be reached (“No one can hold you now/For you are an island” – in the stream, presumably). There are two particularly breathtaking chord changes in the bridge – under the lines “Like I care for you/Oooh, I care for you” – which border on genius. But Streisand is still not making me believe her. “Promises,” meanwhile, is hack midtempo MoR disco, the kind of thing Hoops McCann might be listening to while waiting for his shipment.

But “The Love Inside” threatens something else. Placid, but not undisturbed, electric piano and partly synthesised strings, a vocal sung as though standing in the middle of an immense cathedral, the song is not that far away from what David Lynch and Angelo Badalementi would be doing with Julee Cruise in around half a decade’s time. Streisand nearly pulls it off; keeps herself in check, pays attention to what the lyric is saying – but she can’t, finally, resist stomping down on the loud pedal and so the promise melts and it becomes just another grandstanding Streisand ballad.

Side two may be all about running away from that promise. In “What Kind Of Fool,” she and Gibb trade resentment, sadness and betrayal and there’s good structural architecture in that the song begins as a hushed joint unison, as though they were quietly singing a hymn. Gibb, again, is a model of self-control, never overegging the emotional pudding, whereas Streisand hams; see the accent she gives to the “cut” in “when I cut you down.” She yodels and yelps all over the shop and you finally wonder why it took him so long to call it off; he knows she has failed to catch any of the song’s signifiers, which have stayed over from “First Of May” (“Someone else came in from far away”).

“Life Story” is a complete miscalculation, from its stupid opening verse onward (“Don’t want to stay here/Not very nice/You boiled me over/Now you’re cold as ice”). Given a sleazy Marc Almond performance, it might have been a successfully camp 6/8 barnstormer of a torch song, but Streisand thinks torches are for the Olympics, and so we get a performance which sounds like a parody of all the albums that have recently appeared here (“I’ll be somebody else,” “Dog in the manger”). She bites down hard on that “somebody else” and flings it as far around the room as she can see, over and over again, until the listener realises that she might be singing to a mirror.

If you wondered why Barbra doing disco would never work, you don’t have to venture much further than the dismal “Never Give Up.” As she did on A Star Is Born, she fatally acts the song; every number, no matter how trivial, has to be the final act of Death Of A Salesman. She tries to grasp the concept of being “sassy” but the song just sounds like something the bartender would put on the cruiser stereo in The Love Boat.

And so to the final, “epic,” “Make It Like A Memory,” which hysterically tries to be all things to no people, which endeavours to be the goodbye song to end all goodbye songs, including “If You Go Away,” and ends up falling between so many stools it’s a surprise the barman doesn’t just throw the tune out in the street. Michel Legrand piano chord changes? They’re here. Guitar solo (by one Pete Carr) which goes for the David Gilmour vote? Present. Overblown last act of A Doll’s House masquerading as a pop vocal? Right here (actually the song sounds like a far inferior prototype of “Stop” by Sam Brown). And if that weren’t insufferable enough, here come banks of horns and strings for a seemingly endless “MacArthur Park”-type coda which ends on a single, cliff-edge note which is neither “Bridge Over Troubled Water” nor “Save The Country.” Gibb is clearly trying to get back to Odessa but it’s not really happening, not while Streisand is loudly sinking the boat.

However, I cannot ignore the 300,000 copies it sold or the eighty-two weeks the record spent on the album chart in Britain, nor the five million it shifted in the States, nor indeed the twelve million it sold worldwide. A lot of people were perfectly happy with this sort of numb emotionalism, just as they had been earlier in the year with Boney M or the Shadows (and few, if any, of these people would have been seen dead buying a Peter Gabriel or AC/DC album). But to me Guilty feels like a desperate rearguard action, a possibly doomed attempt to get back to the way things were before all these records from McCartney II onwards changed everything. And now, as this year draws to its unpleasant close, the record feels as completely out of time as a 1980 Beverly Moss would have done. It feels like an accomplished singer of show tunes boiling over to try to prove herself “modern.” These are songs which really call for a Celine Dion to come and magnify and make art of them, but as Celine was only twelve in 1980, Streisand had to be settled for. Guilty, however, was demonstrably not enough. Not after what we’ve been through. Nowhere near.

Next: the final, and biggest-selling, number one album of 1980. Is there anything more to say?