Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Cher - Heart of Stone (1989)

Caress my soul and set it right

Heart of Stone (1989)

US #10, UK #7

The 2nd of her imperial blockbuster/balls-busting schlock rock comeback phase, Cher was selling for millions now. Recording the album was a swift affair once she got started, having became ill in the beginning of the year and being unable to start filming Mermaids earlier as planned. Once the album was out, she was dedicated to promoting it and undertook an extensive world tour. The LP yielded 4 US top 20 hits (a feat well beyond her reach before), and remained in the charts over a year after release. Initially, the cover art was a fabulously 'ugly' painting of Cher positioning her body in front of a cracked stone, using the lines of her limbs and blackness of her wig, to complete the illusion of a broken skull (perhaps a metaphor for her loudly furious rock vocal). It sold 11 million copies, becoming the best-selling LP at that point. It was her first US top ten and first international number one (Australia). 

With her 1980's first foray into rock on the Black Rose project, Cher was quite literally barking up the wrong tree in some people's mnds. Her 2nd signature tune If I Could Turn Back Time (AUS #1, US #3, UK #6, IRE #6) may have had its impact diluted over the years by obvious punchlines about the ageing process (which is of course something Cher continues to defy at all costs, etc), but from the instantly recognizable guitar chords and sultry verses, it is clear the song is a gleaming treasure before even the galvanizing glory of the chorus. Her stubborn ambition to come a rock diva of sorts finally paid off. Thriving on the presumption and possibility that someone out there feels the same (despite Cher's pot mouth saying a bunch of stuff she probably DID mean), and sheer crackling energy, her aggravated/exaggerated reflection stumbles through Warren's cliche's like a blind and drunk drag queen in a china shop.

Far from sounding sad, the sentiment might have appealed to Cher's stubbornness (she was famously reluctant to even record the song), with the uplifting refrain updating every cliched pop lyric going. The endless chorus was one of Cher's most easiest songs to package, complete with an iconic video that sparked a renewal in Cher's image and status. The Bob Mackie ensemble had long been part of Cher's act (for almost a decade), but here it is refined and even tamed down by a leather jacket keeping things elegant, although the video was still banned bt MTV. As the song builds, her teeth-shattering grit creates a genuinely anthemic and triumphant single. Perhaps the biggest achievement of Turn Back Time is that it stands out from the Diane Warren assembly line predictability that arguably dominated half the material on Heart of Stone. The song's brisk velocity shows off Cher in full-on, clothes-off, wanton rock goddess mode. and the stormy intensity of I Found Someone is given a smoother vehicle to shine. It doesn't so much offer you a melody as it hits you over the head with it - walking out at the VMAs almost 20 years later in the same ensemble, the world is still stunned by Cher being Cher. The chaotic soft-rock dissolve of brutal heartache, self-preservation and rueful endurance could have been sung by anyone, but no one else could have made it more than just another generic power-ballad. Cher stands outside of time.

The country-tinged Just Like Jesse James (US #8, UK #11, IRE #10) was the third single and third US top ten in a row from the Heart of Stone album, helping the record shift 3 million copies in America alone. Cher brazenly admitted that she initially thought "this song is kinda crap" and that after going away on tour and other promotional duties, much to her facially-detectable surprise, it became a huge hit. Perhaps due to her dislike for the song, or even her busy schedule (Mermaids had finished shooting late in '89 and she was on an extensive tour), there was no official video for the single apart from a montage of recent promotional footage and some silly scenes shot involving cowboys shooting at each other. On her Farewell tour DVD, she prepares herself to sing the number by warning her fans the track "is not my favourite" in a manner that only she could ever get away with. Nothing like taking people's money and then telling them they have no taste! The shower of Cher dollar bills that then fell onto every audience was probably more ironic than what first met the eye. The track itself connects her 80s rock to her vintage 70s commercial peak of similar narrative pop tracks via a plethora of country-flavoured and sturdy "come on baby" heckles, and an ample ammunition of not so subtle double entendres. "Come on baby show me what that loaded gun is for ... I'm ready baby aim and fire" is the last chance saloon of a different kind.

Her wounded pride takes aim at someone who it seems must have an ego almost as big as her own. She antagonizes and challenges some youthful gun-slinging outlaw lover to take her on as his biggest challenge yet since she's not like the other "women folk" driven wild by his wanton ways. However, she would have a more convincing argument if she didn't sound as if she was simply angry at clearly being last in the queue for criminal cock. Cher's world is never anything less than absurd, and although I'm not a fan of Diane Warren, I'm prepared to bite the bullet with this one. Both Warren and Desmond Child appear to have had a lot of fun penning the song especially for Cher and her uniquely engaging way with a gun-related pop song. "If you can give it, I can take it" she snarls in what is starting to sound like a one-sided mating ritual where some poor guy probably just walked into the bar with a banana in his pocket and doesn't have a clue what's hit him as soon as Cher, with a drink in her, sniffs a bit of fresh meat. Who says love is dead?

The title track (US #20, GER #23, UK #43, IRE #24) was a change in tempo somewhat from her other hit singles from the era. Some might say she was literally a new woman, but it should be obvious by now I am above recycling such cheap plastic surgery jokes. The biggest anomaly of the whole LP this acoustic-driven number showcased a softer tone with some stunning lyrics imbued with hauntingly stark tenderness and might.

Look at the headlines:


Do you lose and win, or win and lose?

This hefty sore-point section must have struck a chord for her, since she was rarely out of the headlines. Clearly relishing every last syllable, the sarcastic seizure is one of grimacing empowerment. The raw and ravaging howl of "how long is love supposed to shine?" sounds like it must have been an outer body experience for her. The song itself was somewhat spruced up a bit for its release, adding some poignant guitar steel during the pre-chorus. These sleek additions are brought to life wonderfully in the touching promotional video where Cher sways back and forth as if she's bursting for the toilet all the while in front of a backdrop of projected home movies featuring a very young Chastity and Elija, and even some vintage Sonny & Cher clips, which increases the pathos tenfold. This is a wonderful spark between visual and sound: Cher has claimed this period was the happiest in her life, and it must have been a proud moment for her to look back and feel content. On a side-note, she never looked more effortlessly beautiful and NATURAL than in her magnificence close-ups here. By the time she is singing at her loudest, the quivering vibrato is used to stylized effect, shuddering and quaking with intense testifying that sounds both like hippy mumbo jumbo and genuine gospel soaring. As the song settles into a sturdy rhythm, a strong line of backing vocals separate to Cher's parts offer yet more push and pull to the thrill and the heartache. Whether this is bad technique or not (ie the loudness), she certainly is grappling with what she has got and using it to full capacity. Yes, there are growls and shouting, but she sure knows exactly how to do this to maximizing effect.

As all fans of the TV show Record Breakers can attest, Bucks Fizz sang the song first. I'm not overly familiar with them, but they have more substance to their work than usually given credit for. It wouldn't surprise me if anyone said this version was their favourite, even if they would be more wrong than Chaz in a dress.

The wistful girl-group goo of the Love On A Rooftop was a faithful cover of fellow 60s pop queen survivor Ronnie Spector. Sadly Ronnie's voice is more shot than some of her love rivals, so Cher's full-bodied bellowing delivers a bolder outline than, well, some of Ronnie's love rivals. The thin rasp of the iconic 'bad girl' of the Ronettes is worth looking up because she obviously knows how to deliver her idiosyncratic magic, but the drama Cher conveys deepens the effect. The slightly dark, stylized romanticism of the production isn't really matched by the lyrics, of which are pure pastiche and little else. Though it's some way below her reading of The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, the 'wall of sound' production echos her 90s tribute, and provides the album with some much needed variety. As a stepping stone between her schlock rock sway and 60s symphonies gone by, she gives it enough muscle to not be trite and the marvelous "whoooooa-whooooah" gasps are as convincing as any vintage 60s pop jewel Diane Warren and Desmond Child clearly had their sights set on. An interesting comparison would be Cher's single Rudy from the I Paralyze album. The cheesy sax finishes me off completely.

Slickly persuasive European single You Wouldn't Know Love (IRE #29, POL #16, UK #55) doesn't know when too much is too much. It certainly boasts an alert rhythm and structure, and Cher's vocals are a smooth glide in between the sky high choruses, but this is song doctor Diane Warren conveyor-belt power-balladry at its most frustrating - it sounds rushed, as if it's dying to burst at the seams to prove what a bad ass rock rogue she is on the relentless kitchen-sink overkill of the chorus, rather than be tweaked into something less deranged for no apparent reason. It deservedly missed the UK top 40, but isn't a complete write-off for fans of this sort of fodder. 

Bunsen burners would have trouble matching the volcanic ferocity of the overblown Emotional Fire, an outtake from Michael Bolton's 1987 album The Hunger. It's completely ridiculous and I wouldn't have it any other way. It would have been a hoot hearing this live, for her backing vocalists scream the house down, but sadly on the Heart of Stone tour Cher skimmed her Geffen album's hits only and did MOR covers instead of ploughing for non-singles highlights such as this. The epic and menacing chorus might require paracetamol, but you get what you ask for. 

Familiar agonies hit their ongoing stride on Still In Love With You, another unsurprising defensive assault, but one of the better ones. Finally a chance to catch your breath, Cher's smooth quiver ripples over some shiny soft-rock surfaces on All Because of You, and the chugging guitars give her verses some added grip. It's not long before things get aggravated, but it's comparatively graceful. Does Anybody Really Fall In Love Anymore? Who Knew Dating A Buff Bagel Boy Could Be So Damned Hard? Sadly only one of these questions is a genuine song title. I say hey. Hey-hey-hey is a Cher-ism I can't ever get enough of.

Although completely faceless, the semi-fast semi-funk of Starting Over is uptempo and light enough to make it easy to sink your ears into. I never thought a song could make the salsa rash of Body To Body sound like a classic, but Kiss To Kiss is one big raspberry. Going gushy at the end (who'd have guessed?), the metal-pop preening is put aside for corny passionless pleasantness.

Renowned player Peter Cetera found an opening in his busy schedule to record with Cher on the tender movie soundtrack country ballad After All (US #6, CAN #5), which was another million-selling top 10 US smash for her. A rather syrupy love song, the gentle intro has became iconic in the tradition of Cher showing montages of her Hollywood movies whilst she changes costumes on tour, or else just nips out for a quick fag, before re-emerging as Dolly Parton's younger transsexual brother in daytime drag. Not getting to perform the song at the Academy Awards (it was nominated for best song) was the second biggest Oscars-related injustice for Cher after not being recognized for Faithful, where she played a woman tied to a chair instead of an operating table for a change, when nominees did not perform at the ceremony that year. Modern Talking singer Thomas Anders was originally set to record it with the US vamp (which perhaps would have increased its chances of a European release), but ultimately the song was a commercial success albeit one limited to the US and Canada. It seems odd that a song that was a hit had no video or proper release outside of these territories. Personally, I'm just gutted it wasn't a duet with Cybill Shepherd (the star of Chances Are). Cher clearly must hate the song, having performed it on the Heart of Stone, Love Hurts and Farewell tours, as well as the low budget sideshow Cher at the Colosseum.

Overall, Heart of Stone packs much the same power-ballad density as Cher (1987), with the mass-pop mode stretched even tighter than her face. The singer herself mildly complained that the record wasn't guitar-orientated enough, and there is indeed an added pop sparkle. It was her biggest commercial step yet, and a fascinating final entry in a decade where her music career had more gaps than some of her favourite outfits.

No comments: