Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mostly Melancholy Madonna Gives Listeners Something To Remember, More Or Less...

The Good: Some surprisingly decent and enduring songs, Moments of voice
The Bad: Some truly insipid lyrics, Somewhat narcoleptic overall sound.
The Basics: Madonna's collection - with new tracks! - presents a fair assessment of her singing ability in a thematically moody outing that endures.

As the world eats up Madonna's new album - which I'm still waiting for a copy to review - I decided to follow up my collections of reviews of Madonna's works from last year with a new-to-me album and review. Fortunately, I don't have to discuss the implications of Madonna working with Justin Timberlake instead of Britney Spears (I'll save that for the new album review when I get it), for this album precedes all that by about a decade. Back in 1995, Madonna released a collection of ballads and lighter pop-rock songs called Something To Remember.

With fourteen tracks clocking in at 71:08, Something To Remember is a collection of ten previously released tracks, three new songs and a remix of one of those songs. They vary greatly in lyrical quality and vocal production, yet strangely the album has a musical and thematic unity to it that seems to tap into a softer niche for Madonna. Honestly, right now I'm having a little problem with reviewing Something To Remember. It's a simple problem; there are songs on this album that are absolutely abysmal. I, for example, loathe "Take A Bow." I already know that I'm giving this album three stars and the recommend. My issue is this: I recently reviewed Sara Bareilles' album Little Voice (reviewed here!) and I could not bring myself to recommend it. Bareilles is an actual artist and I respect that a lot, but every song on her album sounded like she was trying to be someone else. Ultimately, that drove me to give the old "thumb's down" to that album. Madonna, who I look at as an amazing businesswoman and less of an artist, seems like she might be getting a free ride by my recommendation. But the truth is, even on her worst tracks on Something To Remember, even as she dominates the slower, softer niche with this collection, she is always, undeniably Madonna. And for anyone looking to hear Madonna hold a note and not obsess over getting listeners to dance, this is the album for you!

Something To Remember is an album marked by drastically different lyrical qualities. Many of the songs have a simplicity to them that works, like "Crazy For You" and "Love Don't Live Here Anymore (Remix)." Then, there are a few that actually stand out. Madonna articulates a surprisingly vivid emotional landscape, for example, with "Rain." There, despite the obvious rhymes of "rain/pane" and rhyming "rain" with itself, she sings beautifully, "When your lips are burning mine / And you take the time to tell me how you feel / When you listen to my words / And I know you've heard, I know it's real / Rain is what this thunder brings / For the first time I can hear my heart sing / Call me a fool but I know I'm not / I'm gonna stand out here on the mountain top / Till I feel your / Rain . . ." ("Rain").

Moreover, despite the preponderance of lines about memory, I've discovered some of the old songs I have not liked by Madonna grew on me. So, for example, I did not cringe anymore when hearing "And I'll remember the love that you gave me / Now that I'm standing on my own / I'll remember the way that you changed me / I'll remember / Inside I was a child / That could not mend a broken wing / Outside I looked for a way / To teach my heart to sing" ("I'll Remember"). I recall "I'll Remember" as one of those soundtrack songs that was generally better received than the film to which it was attached and being lukewarm to it when it was released. Now, hearing it on Something To Remember, it has moments when it actually seems like Madonna is singing about gaining some sense of inner peace and enlightenment and that is admirable and it comes across well in the song. And "You'll See" actually comes across now as more heartfelt and wrenching as opposed to schmaltzy and commercialized with the intent to generate a hit.

Conversely, "Take A Bow" reminds me of all the times I heard that loathsome track on the radio and wished virtually anything else was playing. With its obvious and dismal lyrics, like, "Make them laugh, it comes so easy / When you get to the part / Where you're breaking my heart . . . / Hide behind your smile, all the world loves a clown / [just make 'em smile the whole world loves a clown] / Wish you well, I cannot stay / You deserve an award for the role that you played . . . / No more masquerade, you're one lonely star / [one lonely star and you don't know who you are]. . ." ("Take A Bow"). With a refrain that rhymes "you" and "true" and "why" and "good-bye" over and over and over again, this is a tiresome song and one that is astonishing the American people latched onto enough to make her longest-running #1 hit. Sigh. It almost astonishes me that I picked that track as the best one on Bedtime Stories, considering how much it bothers me now.

The lyrics are the big problem there, but musically, it does little for me. This is a typical - for this album - slow ballad with minimal production elements and a more orchestral sound. Something To Remember is characterized by ballads and as a result, there is less percussion, less emphasis on the listener moving and more on evoking an emotional reaction. I like that about the album. Unfortunately, it's also where songs like "I'll Remember" fall down. "I'll Remember" sounds less like an emotive ballad when put beside songs like "You'll See" and Something To Remember and more like a movie soundtrack song, which it was.

That's not to say that the album does not have musical diversity. It disguises the fact that it is all slower, heartfelt songs by including tracks like "Crazy For You," which is a slow song that does not feel that way, whatwith its use of percussion, a few strategic crescendos and a few musical lilts in the middle. But, mostly, this is an album that has Madonna with string instruments, like those accompanying her on "This Used To Be My Playground" and "Live To Tell." What keeps the album interesting is that there is enough difference in the sound of the accompaniment and tempo between the tracks, the use of actual melodies and variation in the instruments that accompany Madonna's voice to make it listenable.

Even the new tracks, "I Want You," "You'll See," and "One More Chance" have some musical resonance to them. I don't believe I had ever heard "Oh Father," which is on this album as well, but it is easily forgettable alongside "I Want You" and "You'll See." "You'll See" uses minimal orchestration, but "I Want You" features Massive Attack and is, by their nature, a more produced track. This album balances the orchestral and production elements well and they come together in a wonderfully blended way on songs like "Live To Tell," which use both. The remix of "I Want You" is only marginally different from the original and it's hardly worth putting on the album twice.

The obvious unifying quality to this disc is the voice of Madonna and Something To Remember seems to be an album obsessed with reminding listeners that Madonna has a voice and she knows how to use it when she does not produce over it. She has an impressive range - yes, I never thought I'd write that either - going from husky lower ranges on the moody "Live To Tell" to full-our soprano on "Crazy For You" and "This Used To Be My Playground."

This is true when Madonna's voice is actually utilized for what it is. On many of the tracks, it is clear that it is being blended with production elements to smooth it out or enhance it. And when in doubt, the music competes with her voice, like near the end of "Live To Tell," where Madonna's voice goes softer while the music reaches a crescendo. Nevertheless, this is one of the better examples of Madonna's singing voice and the album's producers picked a decent mix of songs to present her with.

I still like the fun quality to "Crazy For You" and that competes fairly with the more moody "You'll See" as the album's best track. The low point is "Oh Father," if for no other reason than it is entirely forgettable (though there's a special place in the pit of my bowels for "Take A Bow," which I would argue is one of the worst written songs I've ever heard).

For other works by Madonna, please check out my reviews of:
Bedtime Stories
“Nothing Really Matters” (single)
Ray Of Light
Confessions On A Dance Floor
I'm Going To Tell You A Secret


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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