Stars is Cher's blazing masterpiece, a soaring artistic triumph of the kind of beauty no scalpel could touch. Cher inhabits these songs as if it was a life-long craving. She puts on a gripping journey, displaying a poignant maturity and inspires a vivid fascination she is rarely given credit for. This album is her real autograph. Shacking up with red-blooded hetro David Geffen for a bit, newly-divorced 29 year old Cher was legally free from Sonny's shady legal wrangles and now had her own highly-rated TV show and brand new record deal with more money thrown at her than the fake notes she showered fans with during the Farewell tour back in '04. Recorded during a tumultuous time in her life, the dedication of the performance failed to win over music critics who really seemed to go for her. A divorced woman who wasn't shy about being glamorous, a half-naked Half-Breed, dating new men and who was plastered on any woman's magazine going with headlines almost as risque as her outfits made her an easy target - an album full of sincerity probably clashed with her celebrity transgressions. The album flopped, and the only hits were the ones she took from the press:
She had no one but herself to blame for the emptiness of her new album ... maybe it's even time to send Sonny an apology. It doesn't look like she is ever going to top "I Got You Babe".
- the L.A Times
Well, if Sonny & Cher couldn't even 'top' that song, with their 7 albums (their last had been released less than two years ago), then boo hoo. There was no pleasing some critics. The inability to accept Stars truly baffles me. It's the album she had been building towards throughout her career, and for once the covers were truly crafted around her and she had been involved in the project in a much more hands on manner than ever before. The terms on which she was judged above speak for themselves - Cher had got too big for her boots, boldly declaring herself an independent artist was over-stepping a boundary. Perhaps if it had been suggested the singer apologize to Snuff Garrett, the thinly-veiled bias could have at least had an argument that stood up to scrutiny since Sunny hadn't gave Cher a hit himself in over 8 years. Cher's 70s career had owed much more to the ornate narrative stuff from Suff. Stars will remain the singer's most underrated work that didn't involve anesthetic.
There is an air of melancholy that flows through the majority of this album. The songs wash over you gently with their lush tide of swirling pop fantasia. Soft-rock ballad Love Enough is tinged with aching country guitars and a soulful vocal that is both understated and expressive. The plaintive voice begins to well up before croaking alarmingly right at the very end, and if that doesn't put a smile on your face nothing will. Swooning. She devours Bell Bottom Blues with an affliction that's too wounded to simply sound loud or aggressive for the sake of it. Again, the final shrieking bark isn't affected or a knowing quirk, simply it is Cher's instrument being stretched to an emotional limit. Whereas the common accusation is that on her 80s anthems she would sing loudly as if creating humongous emotions that are too ridiculous to make any sense (for those not intoxicated by the cult of her persona), her devotion to the lyrics compel her in a deranged manner that's believable and more vulnerable than before. I guess that's the advantage not having your songs written by that dowdy dyke Diane Warren.
First single chosen, These Days was recently used in the final season of Brothers & Sisters (although it was not Cher's version). Cher's gloomy syrup melts right into the soft stirring of the lush string-laden musicality.
For those familiar with It's A Man's World, this one bears a slight resemblance to the brooding and reflective struggle of album track Angel's Running, but has a far more contemplative and less-resolved approach, with soft and fragile final urging: "please don't confront me with my failures, I've not forgotten them" sounds like a difficult evening of soul-searching is ahead of her with the help of her best friends called Gin and Lime. With its slightly scathing lyrics, the funky and taunting Dr Soul is almost an interval to the 'bell-bottom' gazing. Cher gets down and groovy, with her thick gravy-voice spurting over it all in a delightfully messy and bitter fashion in places. If I ever I have heard a lip-licking performance from Cher this would come high on the list. The one original cut is one helluva tour-de-force. Just This One Time is my favourite Cher vocal of all time. Drenched in gospel, the splashes of searing heartache are soul-wrenching stuff. The scorching falsetto is exquisite, and the emotion overflows like a bath-tub. When it goes off it's a real cork-popping moment of vocal extravagance. This one is done with real zeal. Firing from all cylinders, the song goes off like fireworks, but the control is wonderful.
Above: performing Just This One Time on The Cher Show, with lots of hair-fixing and an exceptional F6 falsetto boldly going where no Cher song had gone before (3:43 onwards).
As blue as an imprisoned Native American can be, Cher hits her stride (and a soaring, gospel-soaked jackpot) on Geronimo's Cadillac. She most definitely had her blue suede shoes on for this one. The song is a smoother glide than Walking In Memphis (although much less polished), but for me it hits the same spot with a similar state of grace(land). A more eloquent 'touch down' on some of the themes stomped on by Half-Breed. The bluesy subtly of the lyrics (the piano alone pours emotion like a tap) genuinely ache, benefited from an amazing pack of backing singers, state her case by addressing in turn "Sargent, Sargent", "Warden, Warden", "Govenor, Govenor", and then "People, People." She delivers every lyric masterfully, the tension, surrender, aching and stoic protest inform every facet: "listen to me" she hypnotically requests, much like the casual "won't you look down over me?" from Walking In Memphis (where the difference in vocals make it sound as if Cher's been down with the whole sex change malarkey a lot longer than we think). The song almost gains too much speed, but more like this, please Cher! Listen to me.
Above: Cher with her fag in the studio (although I somehow doubt David Geffen gave her 10 a day)
Another groove potion, Rock N' Roll Dr is a stronger dosage than the sneer of Mr Soul's furtive funk foreplay. Basking in ska, the Caribbean heat of The Harder They Fall has a rock edge and contains more than a few lyrical gems that always amuse me, either through actual wit or simply because of the way Cher sings them. There's no denying, she really throws herself into this one, but never overcooks it. First loves are always special, and Love Hurts, with its caressing and meditative execution, is infinitely superior to the version she recorded for 1991's album of the same name. Her voice sounds like a warm fog of emotions coming in and out of focus. I said fog not fog-horn. The sensual sigh where she sings "honey" is luxuriously sublime. The strings that float away as the song's fade-out finale are dazzling. The soft sparkle of Stars is the glistening piano ballad closer. It doesn't linger as strongly as Love Hurst and should have been track 9 as far as I'm concerned.
The array of gems Stars links together is like a separate universe in contrast to the rest of her back catalogue except for It's A Man's World, which returned her to a similar greatness. What often impresses me the most about Stars is that it avoids all the 80s belting and yet it's the most quintessentially Cher: perhaps because it is the album we all knew she was capable of. Most of the songs possess a remarkably coherent pathos, but each contain their own vastness, and she even gets to rock out on two of them. An album of covers (with the exception of the gospel agony of Just This One Time), Cher is an architect of the material in so far as her interpretations are mesmerizing and the songs are built completely around her. She's taking more care with her vocal control, and only on It's A Man's World, which would come some 20 years later, has the singer truly pushed herself to make a timeless landmark of an album worthy of her talents.