Thursday 27 June 2013

Barbra STREISAND: Love Songs

(#259: 30 January 1982, 7 weeks;  27 March 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Memory/You Don't Bring Me Flowers/My Heart Belongs To Me/Wet/New York State Of Mind/A Man I Loved/No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)/Comin' In And Out Of Your Life/Evergreen (Love Theme From "A Star Is Born")/I Don't Break Easily/Kiss Me In The Rain/Lost Inside Of You/The Love Inside/The Way We Were

I was somebody's boyfriend now.  This would mean a lot of trial and error.  But she was who I wanted to try and err with.  - Rob Sheffield, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran

As many of you know, 1982 is a pivotal year; it is in some ways the year for music, that most profound and mysterious thing, to somehow renew itself.  That this album is the top-selling one in the UK for this year is one of its deepest ironies (and it has many).  In some ways it throws a premature damper on the whole year, as if to say meanly, like the scary witch from The Wizard of Oz, "I'll get you my little pretty - and your little dog Toto, too!"

I didn't grow up in a Streisand-friendly household; I wasn't really aware of her fame until our family moved back to Los Angeles in 1977 and my aunt Debbie showed up to greet us with an odd hairdo that she said she got because she thought Streisand was cool; I could barely recognize her under it, at first. (I think I also saw a parody or two of her movies in Mad magazine, but they were mean to everyone, really.)  In listening to this album I began to understand the chasm between what was and still is considered "proper" and "correct" popular music and this other thing that we have already encountered more than once here:  New Pop.  To anyone who doesn't get why New Pop had to happen or indeed what it was up against, I suggest they listen to Love Songs.  (Note:  This album has four more songs than its American equivalent, Memories, the extra songs being the two songs from Wet and two from Songbird, "A Man I Loved" and "I Don't Break Easily.") 

But first I do want to say that I know that there are those out there who like Streisand, who love her voice - a voice that for them can do no wrong.  And I know you might be opposed to the idea that she could be in the way of anything, that surely she is beside it or bigger than it.  But look at those weeks, I suggest.  This album (a perverse idea for a Valentine's Day gift, now that I think of it - more on that later) sold tons, obscuring the actual vivid New Pop movement, like a stubborn cloud that keeps blocking the sun, stopping hapless albums like Haircut 100's Pelican West, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret by Soft Cell or heck, even Simon and Garfunkel's The Concert in Central Park from getting to the top.  Instead, here's Streisand with over an hour of...memories.

The album starts off promisingly enough with the song "Memory" from Cats - Streisand does the West End, so far, so good...always nice to note T.S. Eliot's got a place here at Then Play Long...but this comes too soon after the superior Elaine Paige version.  Yes, I said superior.  Why?  Paige may not have the range Streisand has, but I don't have to vault over Paige's ego to hear the song and be moved by it.  Nor does Paige sing "Life was beautiful then" (followed by a small laugh) - no, it is "I was beautiful then" and in making it personal, Paige gets to the heart of the matter.  Clearly this song was chosen to fit in with the theme, and not because it is a show tune that Streisand (usually so good at them) can fully put across.  Listening to it I felt only that the new day beginning was one the old cat wanted to hoard, and that "Touch ME!" plea wasn't so much a plea as an order.

The next 'love song' is her duet with fellow outerborough legend Neil Diamond, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers."  With this, one of the flaws of the albums is revealed - that other people are more believable than Streisand is, with the odd result of this seeming to be not a duet but two people's recordings mashed up, just as the idea happened in the first place.  Diamond is the husband, coming home after a hard day's work and he doesn't even get a kiss or a hug; and he sounds fed up with it.  She complains - it seems all she does in complain in this song - until I want to tell her, you know, if you weren't so busy pitying yourself you might realize that you can send him flowers and maybe get some in return?  And then he might sing you a love song, and then, and then...but this is the Couples Therapy Anthem, with neither of them able to say goodbye, or mysteriously able to make the first move.  He's trying to talk to her, she keeps looking in the mirror; I pity the person who does try to get them on the same wavelength.  Diamond's voice is what makes this song at all bearable.

And now, "My Heart Belongs To Me"- from that inexplicably popular movie/soundtrack, A Star Is Born.  I have little to say here, save that this sounds like 70s tv drama music, and made me think of how hopeless Streisand is as a rock singer - that as straightforward as she can be, she worries too much and is too mannered to truly cut loose and her directions to her man - "put out the light, close your eyes" - are the exact opposite of what she wants in the previous song.  (And the title reminds me of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" - emphasis on the "me.")  Patti Labelle could have done justice to this song, perhaps...

Until now I didn't feel that itchiness I so often feel when considering the 70s (and this album is all from the 70s/early 80s) but with "Wet" (title track of her album from '79, which did comparatively little business in the UK) I started to feel that unpleasant later-version-Stylistics feeling again.  "Wet" is a word association song, greeting card pop, a ballad that only David Jacobs* could bother with now.  It is slow, attempts to be delicate - there is no part where Streisand really raises her voice - and yet what is the point of being reminded that "tears are wet" which then leads to the forced/CBI** ending, "Wet is love/wet is me."  The song dissolves in the end, or rather melts, a kind of still pool of Narcissus.  A future TPL entry will discuss tears and their worth; sometimes in listening to this album I felt as if it was the negative that the New Pop positive peels away from, as in film.

From there it's on to...Billy Joel?  Oh yes, it is.  "New York State Of Mind" is actually one of his songs I don't mind, as I can feel the world-weary-but-ya-gotta-love-New Yawk-don't-ya feelings he has; it's a love song written to a place that has seen better days, by someone who loves it anyway.  That doesn't really happen here; Streisand tries to sound all homegirl and down with it, but it sounds more like she's trying way too hard to actually be believable.  Taking a Greyhound girl?  Really?  At the end she emotes and even scat sings, as if to show that is what is appropriate with this kind of song, in a way that someone actually from Brooklyn doesn't need to do.  I mean, how would fellow New Yorker Laura Nyro sing this?  Or Carole King?  They would put you right there on the hot pavement, reading the papers, walking around like Shaft...but Streisand just goes for that high note, her love for New York nowhere to be found.  I remember the "I Love New York" tv commercials and they were more believable than this.  The saxophone player here is trying his best, by the way, to make this into something genuinely good, but it's pretty much in vain.

"A Man I Loved" is a strange song; the lyrics are part promise, part threat, and the subject is...God?  John Lennon?  "The dream is over/I don't wanna hear."  "Someday he will happen to you."  "Softly he whispers" Streisand sings, while the background singers too loudly go "AAAAAH-AAAAHHH."  This could be some kind of secret song about her father (who died before she was two) but there's something uneasy about this being in the past tense, let alone the idea that he isn't so much a kindly prescence but one who haunts.  If there is any real center of feeling here it's with this song, a kind of scary fragment of unprocessed grief, and she for once doesn't want her suffering to be so explicit, or rewarded with applause.

And now, another 'love song'...Donna Summer was at her height of popularity when she and Streisand recorded "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" and it's the only time the album actually picks up speed, becomes modern, and climbs out of its sonambulent and lacrymose tendencies.  And once again, Streisand is upstaged by Summer, who clearly has - again - more believablility here.  "I always dreamed I'd find the perfect lover" Streisand sings, and Erich Fromm headdesks somewhere.  It's a break-up anthem, all right, but that word "perfect" sticks out in the song as an impossible ideal - you wonder what this boredom is all about, his or hers?  Whatever, she's had enough, and the poor guy is out the door like an old sofa or stereo system, to be replaced and no doubt replaced again.  No space for trial and error, no negotiations, even. 

I had some hopes for "Comin' In And Out Of Your Life" but found it to Marcello said, "two steps away from Lionel Richie."  As an r'n'b ballad it would be fine done by Celine Dion, for instance, who could actually make a line like "I don't need to touch you to feel you" make sense; who could make her longing to be a more permanent feature in the Other's existence real. 

"Evergreen (Love Theme From 'A Star Is Born')" is kind of unnecessary here (it's been on two other #1 albums already) but here it is again.  I have no quibble with the soppy music - Paul Williams used to scare me as a kid but doesn't anymore - it's the lyrics that make no sense.  It's Abigail's Party time all over again, with so many cliches about what love is like that I felt I was stuck in the awful 70s cartoon Love Is...surrounded by oddly sexless/naked figures who would say things like "Love...soft as an easy chair" and "rose under the April snow" (which must lead to "The Rose"/The Rose) and burble about how something can be new and fresh every day and also sturdy like an evergreen....  "Time won't change the meaning of our love."  Oh yes it will; yes it will, indeed.  This is love sung about - and they are Streisand's own words here - by someone who is more in love with love than actually has experience as to what genuine love is.  I am going to quote Rob Sheffield again, as he puts it better than I can:

"Love can do whatever it wants to you.  And it's a lot meaner than you are.  (And then love starts talking to you the way Kirk Douglas talks to Jane Greer in Out of the Past.)  It won't be quick.  It'll break you first.  You won't be able to answer the phone or walk around in your own apartment without wondering, is this it?  And when it does come, it still won't be quick.  And it won't be pretty."   

This is not the kind of love that Streisand sings about; the kind that takes over your life slowly, breaking you down, the kind of overwhelming experience that such an album as Love Songs cannot hope to bring to life, so funereal and fundamentally sad an album as it is.

And so it continues:  "I Don't Break Easily" is yet another break-up song, her being "blinded by your firelight" and having "all the very best of me" taken, only to throw out all his stuff and remove his name from the door, because once again he has failed to please her in some way; or perhaps he was just too much for this tough lady, who's going to show him what for.  Once again I get that itchy feeling that this is all bluster and if she was serious she'd change the locks; but she doesn't.  Or that once love actually stops being new and fresh and exciting, and begins to settle into something more predictable and less wildly romantic, she wants him out.  And then sings mournfully about how she's suffered.  (In a moment of meta-ness, I imagine Neil Diamond coming back home to find Striesand listening to Love Songs, instead of saying hello, even.)  But really - are any of these songs "love songs"?

I suppose "Kiss Me In The Rain" (from, you guessed it, Wet) is one, though it is more about, yes, memories.  "Bring back those memories" she sings, "Come join me in my fantasy."  She wants to go back to feeling like a child here, going back to her first romance, out there in the rain she doesn't mind if she gets wet - nor does she mind, I guess, a terrible rock guitar solo.  All this remembering, all these memories.  It is at this time that another song called "Memories" is sung by a young Whitney Houston on Material's album One Down (saxophone solo by Archie Shepp) - just to show that a nation that voted for Ronald Reagan is not entirely ruled by sentiment or nostalgia.

"Lost Inside Of You" is a fine Leon Russell song that he co-wrote with Streisand; and it sounds very much like his song, with interesting chord changes and a bit more grit and soul than can be found elsewhere here; she still manages to sound more like an air raid siren than is necessary - the longing of the song, the "songs you sing, love you bring" is more suited to Karen Carpenter, which is to say again Streisand is not that believable here, good as the song is.  i suppose we can be grateful that it's not the A Star Is Born version, with Kris Kristofferson; this would either make this album worse than it already is, or point to how, yet again, someone else is more believeable than Streisand herself. 

I know there are Bee Gees fans out there who feel that they get slated for their lyrics, and feel that others shouldn't be so mean about them.  "The Love Inside," though, isn't one of the better songs to use in their defence.  "The dream we sailed was far and wide" is one thing, but "I got me loving you" is just bad grammar, even if it does mean something.  (I'm still not sure what it means.)  Yet another break-up song, this mysterious love inside (where else is it?) is supposed to last even though "The word is goodbye."  Streisand has definite problems with her lower register here, and does her best with the Gibbian syntax, though say Julee Cruise could actually make it work (or again, Donna Summer).

And now, the end:  "The Way We Were" is (of course) the only way to end this album: a song that is the oldest one here, and the most forthright in saying that things aren't just remembered; they are forgotten, too.  (Though I wonder at the line "we simply choose to forget"; if only this was so.)  The way we were has metamorphosed through time, to become the way we are now; and so the album ends, finally acknowledging that looking back isn't really needed, that when you look back you just see what you want to see.  "Memories may be beautiful" she sings, pointing to the fact that they may not be all that beautiful, and that this whole album is not so much waiting for that new sun to rise as mourning the loss of the old one and being unable to move on, so hobbled by sentiment and soppiness and old pictures (the inner sleeve shows a table with a pink floral table cloth, with a fancy teacup and lace napkin, some lilies lying artfully on their side, with photos from her movies all around - the only photo with any real life being the non-studio one taken with Neil Diamond, where he looks all bearded and proto-indie, and she looks pleased to be with him).

So who bought Love Songs?  From its themes and pace and being advertised on tv, I can only assume women of a certain age - I have called them The Housewives of Valium Court - are the ones here, the same women who bought her other albums and who will probably only buy another one this year, which this blog will get to in good time.  It is an album of remembrance; of longing; but not really of love, unless you count the sufferings of love.  Like Cliff Richard, Streisand doesn't really know what to do with love once she has it; unlike Cliff, she cannot see that people change, circumstances change, and that it's not anyone's fault; it's how life is.  That this should be #1 on Valentine's Day is painful, as if to say that love is all sad and full of boredom and break-ups, that love has nothing to do with joy, true sorrow, giddiness, the feeling that every air mote, every atom, feels different, is charged with a kind of power that is indeed stronger than you, bigger than you.  That love isn't about a search for perfection (doomed) but a kind of realistic hope and willingness to work with what you've got.  Love isn't about memories, mostly, because love is centered in the here and now.  And it begins to turn, curdle, if memories are all it has to live on.

This would be a powerful album if only I could believe the singer.  Streisand counts herself as an actress who sings, not vice versa, and yet these are all performances mainly to amuse...herself?  Someone who mistakes the signifier for the signified?  Or perhaps she is acting here, but not reaching deep enough within herself to really bring these songs into any kind of three-dimensional life.  I wasn't really moved much by this album, which is supposed to be so moving; the only times it came to life for me were when others appeared, including, yes, Barry Gibb as a backing singer.   

By early 1982 I was listening (as was Rob Sheffield) to The Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat and still ditching classes and listening to CFNY whenever I could, getting more and more comfortable in a world away from Streisand and general MOR pop.  I was beginning to understand the chasm I mentioned, the one between this old, exhausting and (to me, anyway) 70s way of constantly harping on about the past.  The Go-Go's had a song about "Fading Fast" which was all about forgetting that boy who lied; they were about being active and out there, as opposed to this passivity that is so overdone that the very act of remembrance itself is so dramatized that actual feelings are drowned out.  It is an album where the listener has to bring his/her own experiences to bear; Streisand is not giving her all here, just as she is not really "there" on the album cover; this is me, blankly looking at the camera, slightly bored, expressionless.  On the back she looks away, beyond the viewer, the camera, lost in her own world of 'deep feeling' I suppose.  Even superficially then, she isn't engaging with anything, it really is all signs and received knowledge. 

Maybe that was enough for many people, but for a different generation, a different scene, it was barely enough to go on, at best.

Next up:  "a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/Hanging their old love letters on the line to dry."  No kidding, Mr. Weller.               

*Octogenarian BBC Radio 2 broadcaster who plays what he calls "our kind of music" - show tunes, standards, string/flute-heavy instrumental versions of same - very late on Sunday night.  He is in many ways a personficiation of what Radio 2 once was, and for that matter still is.

**Crushing Biblical Inevitability.  Sadly, there's a lot of this here.