The Good: One or two songs/versions
The Bad: Bland video, Uninspired vocal performances, "Live" performance conceits
The Basics: Madonna's tour album is a flat-out disappointment.
I hate reviewing live albums. I loathe reviewing live albums because if the performance on the c.d. is not great and I review the c.d., invariably I'll get someone who pops up to write about how they were at the concert where the album was recorded and it was an amazing live experience. This nightmare scenario replays over and over again in my reviews and I've discovered that Bruce Springsteen fans are especially rabid about that (check out my review of Live From New York City here!) and there seems to be a lack of ability for such fans to disconnect between the performance they remember and the c.d. that was marketed after it. Then again, I get comments when I review some artist's debut where people flame me about how they improve on their subsequent albums. So, sadly, I shall once again begin my review of a live album with the disclaimer that what I am reviewing is Madonna's two disc (one c.d., one DVD) set called I’m Going To Tell You A Secret. This is not a commentary on the concert it was recorded at (save in remarking on the DVD), this is not a commentary on Madonna's overall career or ability to perform a live concert. No, this is just for this two-disc set (I feel so cheap even having to write that).
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret is a fourteen track trainwreck that clocks in at just under sixty-six minutes. The DVD is two hours of watching Madonna move her tour from city to city with limited performance footage in each place. The DVD is billed as a documentary, but it is nothing so cohesive as watching Madonna set up from city to city and there's nothing terribly extraordinary about it. In fact, it becomes so pointless as to include Madonna going to the bathroom and insisting that the camera operator does not want to follow her, which they do. It's very "we're making a documentary" documentary as opposed to something that actually says something or makes a genuine statement. It's not even terribly revealing of Madonna as an artist or human being (though watching her complain to a vocal coach in one of the bonuses over the alterations to her diet her coach insists on is certainly fun). The DVD is not nearly enough to justify purchasing this edition of this album.
As for the live performance, it's been a while since I wished I could simply cheat out the review as "meh, this is not worth your time," but I'm trying to write something truly insightful here. I’m Going To Tell You A Secret is not worth your time, whether or not you like the works of Madonna. Listening to this c.d., the listener often finds themselves lost. So, for example, there is the instrumental bagpipe track "Susan MacLeod" which morphs into Madonna's "Into The Groove" and during the bagpipe arrangement, the listener just wonders what this has to do with Madonna. Madonna is not playing the bagpipes. The bagpipes do not naturally segue into "Into The Groove" - in fact, the bagpipes cut out completely and the synths start up to make the transition that had previously only been the drums accompanying the bagpipes leading into "Into The Groove."
In short, this album has a sense of theatrics that are lost in an audio performance. "American Life" opens with helicopter sounds and the soundtrack of explosions and gunfire and it is utterly pointless. On the DVD the video may see (for Madonna's New York performance) the dance routine and video footage that accompanies these sounds. On the c.d., they are abstract noises, completely devoid of context. In short, it means nothing in the audio performance. It is simply noise. There is no music backing it, there is no statement that is made by it, instead its sound. This represents the worst problems of a live album; simply capturing the reality of the moment. In this case, it captures the reality of a moment that is completely lost without the visuals. It's a waste of minutes on this disc.
Similarly, I’m Going To Tell You A Secret opens with possibly the weirdest Madonna track yet with "The Beast Within." This song - not even credited in the section of the liner notes listing all of the songs performed on the c.d. and DVD - is an indescribably bad track that simply describes having the devil inside. With lyrics like, "He is coming with the clouds / And every eye will see him / Everyone who pierced him and all the tribes of the Earth will [? . . .] on account of him . . ." ("The Beast Within"), this track opens the live album on an unsettling and disappointing note. This is a live album opened by Madonna the Cabalist.
That's not to say the entire album is a wash. Fans of Madonna will find a decent version of "Like A Prayer" and it's always fun to hear "Vogue." Personally, after the pointless explosion sounds, I found "American Life" to be one of the best tracks as it accented Madonna's ability to actually sing.
Sadly, much of the rest of the album makes the counterargument. Madonna's "live" presentations of many of the songs have vocals that are virtually identical to her previously released versions. "Into The Groove," "Die Another Day" and “Music” all have vocal presentations by Madonna that vary very little from her album (or radio single) tracks. Sure, there's an intro to Music that makes it flow out from "Into The Groove" well, but Madonna's vocal performance is underwhelming. In fact, the only real difference is when Madonna lets the audience take the refrain, much like Oasis recording the audience singing "Live Forever" on their live album Familiar To Millions (reviewed here!).
The peak of this disappointing set of presentations that sound awfully close to their studio versions comes on "I Love New York," the album's final track. One of the weakest links from her album Confessions From A Dance Floor, this track is so close to the original as to be indistinguishable. Indeed, devoid of the usual "live" conceits, like the sound of the audience, this track might as well be the studio version.
This brings me to the other problem with this album as a c.d. (again, not as a live performance, but rather the recording I am listening to right now). This, possibly more than any other live album I have ever heard, album seems to be obsessed with engineering in the sound of the crowd. While the average listener would likely make a fair bet that a Madonna concert is not a quiet place, the album's engineer seems to be most insistent on convincing the listener of that. Every track - save the final one - is cluttered with the cheers and screams of fans. It's dull, predictable and the listener could live without the "proof" that Madonna is performing live if this is the best they can do.
The counterargument, of course, is that Madonna's accompaniment on most of the tracks is a lot richer - or at least different - than the studio versions. This is generally true, but that alone provides the essential purpose of the audience noise; to provide something different for the listener. The pinnacle of this conceit is Madonna's plaintive request to the audience that they listen closely to the lyrics to John Lennon's "Imagine" (right before she sings it) because "We have to make the world a better place" ("Imagine," track 10). This might have captured a moment that occurred, but it plays poorly and it replays worse. The ultimate feeling listening to it is that this is a self-serving sound byte. I mean, during her show Madonna no doubt did more than ask people if they were having a good time, insist that they dance and tell everyone that the world needs to be made into a better place.
I've often argued that the best a live album can do is provide a different version for music that is either rather produced in the studio or less familiar to listeners. In some artist's cases, the live album may serve as the closest to a "Greatest Hits" for those who do not have compilation albums. Madonna would seem to be an ideal candidate for this, but this disc proves that her entertainment attempts seek instead to recreate the studio experience as opposed to reinterpret it. As a result, we are not treated to, for example, a soft jazz version of "Vogue." No, it sounds almost identical to the radio hit. None of the songs have genuine reinterpretations and as Madonna has greatest hits albums, this compilation is just substandard.
The best track is Madonna's song "Holiday" which seems to be the closest to a reinterpretation of one of her tracks that she manages on this album. The low point is probably "I Love New York," though the opener "The Beast Within" still seems a stiflingly bad choice to open I’m Going To Tell You A Secret with.
For other works by Madonna, please check out my reviews of:
“Nothing Really Matters” (single)
Ray Of Light
Confessions On A Dance Floor
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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