Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Cher - Bittersweet White Light (1973)

Kill the lights
 US #140

Cher's torch ballads were to the 70s what AIDS was to the 80s: absolutely everywhere, but not what anyone wanted besides a few mentally unstable gays. Even when flopping, if Cher had been any more 'active' she'd have had a gaydar profile looking for 'no strings attached fun with a man OVER 5'5" but UNDER 55 please'. However, Bittersweet White Light is all about the strings AND the oldies, with its lush setting of re-visiting and re-vamping the 20s, 30s and 40s, and the man behind it is very much under 5'5 if not quite 55. Between 1971-1979, Cher released no more than 16 albums (11 of which were solo, 5 with Sonny and 1 with some druggie she shacked up with for a bit who looked like a stoned viking). This is the last solo album produced by Sonny, and seemingly the last straw as her next album would more or less symbolically sever ties with the possessive 'little man', before swiftly coming back strong with Half Breed. 

On the concept kick, and recorded the week before Christmas in 1972 no less, gays may be shocked to find out the Christina Aguilera didn't invent the 1920,s 1930s or even the 1940s after all as Cher once again is doing it first. Giving classic songs then-contemporary arrangements was the idea, but it does sound like an extravagant souvenir of her solo spots highlights on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (which was the inspiration for the project). Some fans argue the album contains her best ever vocals, but this really isn't the case. Instead, Cher injects nearly every little nuance her voice is capable of into songs that at first glance would seem out of reach for her. Rather than growl over the cracks, Cher fully sings around and through them in spellbinding fashion. The effect is in turns impressive, furious and sentimental, and just as on her more familiar 70s hits, she often sounds like she's singing with her mouth full of something that's burning the roof of her mouth.

Singing loudly, but as if using only one half of her mouth, By Myself is a rousing purge of jaunty instrumentation that's airy, clean and cinematic. One of my favourite overall executions on the album. Softly fusing piano with electronic synths, Cher's restraint on I Got It Bad & That Ain't Good has a yawning elegance. Expect a key change, etc. I adore her croaking finale, and the groaning that must have been sounds not even heard by Sonny. Am I Blue? is broody and seethes with a sensual lust that flickers between a smoldering persuasion and being simply deranged. Her voice cackles like a hot swamp: certainly an acquired taste at times, it's committed theatrical numbers like this that push this polarizing status to the limit. "Am I gay? Oh-oh, was I gay until today?" couldn't have been a bigger leap for homosexuals than an actual homosexual leaping off a bridge. Delightful as it may be, it was the wrong, wrong, wrong choice as a single. Psychedelic Dr Who-esque intro aside, How Long Has This Been Going On? could make you ask the same question if you're not partial to this kind of thing. Personally, I think the backing track sounds like something French duo Air would have been chuffed with.

Atmospheric and basking in serene splashes of piano and other rippling sounds, The Man I Love showcases Cher's charismatic drawl that ploughs through each word and uproots either their meaning or pronunciation simply to fit her own inimitable style. Getting through songs almost as fast as she went through lovers, Jolson Medley (a drowsy Sonny Boy, the charging chorus-line kicks of her squawk-fest My Mammy and slipping into something more flamboyant still with Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody) probably illustrates the time constraints of the recording. Good luck understanding a word she's singing on The Man That Got Away. Just know that it's one of the most overblown Cher performances of all time, thus rendering it essential. Her scolding delivery sounds like she's gargling hot tar. Her fine interpretive talents are inflamed to the max, sounds drunk AND pissed. Why Was I Born is one for her teenage gay fans of all ages throughout the decades. The swanky jazz thrills of More Than You Know is a clear highlight, and would have been my choice as a single here. Ornate, elaborate and yet somehow throwaway, Cher's fine and jolly enunciation fills the lyrics like wine glasses. Playful and memorable without being too mannered.

A bizarre commercial miss-step, but an essential artistic stepping stone in the overall Cher experience. A vivid expression of a singer wanting to expand her physical and emotional range. An album that possibly tries AND tires itself if not its listeners to stand in absolute contrast to all Cher expectations - there are still plenty excessively-Cher moments, gaudy-Cher moments and even glimpses of rock-Cher moments. There is no denying that as the successful TV stint showed at the time, Cher has always appealed to a far-ranging audience, but on this bold project the aim to translate the popularity of 'solo torch spots' failed to hit the mark with record buyers.

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