Cher’s got a weird place in pop music – a veteran who’s been in the business for millions of years, yet she still struggled to find her voice. She jumps around genres, changing musical styles as much as she changed her Bob Mackie costumes. The result of this musical schizophrenia is a discography that is wildly uneven. The reason for her lack of focus could be that when you get down to it, Cher’s not much of a singer. Blessed with a mediocre, if distinct voice, she’s gotten by with ambition, doggedness, and a bottomless list of producers and songwriters that are willing to have her deep yodel bray their lyrics.
Not so much a singer, but a personality, Cher has still managed to make new music in the new millennium; where other pop stars have failed, Cher has thrived. And in 1998, Cher decided to make bid for world domination with her hit record “Believe” – a dance-pop song that pretended it had deep, thoughtful lyrics and boasted production values that whittled Cher’s dominating voice into a computerized warble. It’s because of her that every singer on the planet since has abused Auto-Tune.
But a lot has changed since 1998 in music, and Cher’s bid for musical relevance comes at a time when Lady Gaga has decided to use pop music as a platform for her attempt at social change. When compared to the performance art aspect of Lady Gaga, Cher seems downright quaint. As if she has woken up from a deep slumber, she charges back with a collection of dance tunes that she hopes will place her back on top. Will they?
It’s clear from Closer to the Truth, that Cher chooses her songs and collaborators like a cartoon rich lady picking jewels and furs – the bigger, the shinier, the flashier, the better. The lead single “Woman’s World” has some garbled lyrics that makes the song unsure if it’s a pro-feminist anthem or merely a call to the dance floor. The songs Ibiza, Euro-Dance sound awfully dated, but again, one cannot argue that the singer isn’t committed to the nonsense she’s spouting, even if her voice is merely one of many clashing, competing sounds that are crammed into a four-minute pop song.
“Take It Like a Man” has the diva demanding that her lover keep up with her – how exactly is he flagging, we’re not sure, but the pun in the title is too irresstible. And Cher gets to do some quality bellowing before the producers start playing around with her voice, adding effects that sound as if she’s singing under water.
Thankfully, “My Love” offers a more restraint (for Cher) sound. She gets to show off her pretty falsetto – something she needs to do more often. I always maintained that her 1996 album It’s a Man’s World is criminally underrated – it has some of her most appealing singing. The production sounds like a retread of “Believe” but thankfully, the studio wizards wisely leave her voice along (for the most part). Unfortunately, the bulk of the dance songs all sound like they belong on Believe, except for the interesting “I Walk Alone” a sassy disco barn raiser with a nifty banjo – and before you say ewww, the banjo works – it shouldn’t but it does.
If the first half of Closer to the Truth sounds like Cher doing her best robot impression, the second half indulges in the sort of early 90s power ballad type of pop music, which actually serves her best. When she’s free of squiggly vocal effects or overdubbing and echo effects, she can be a pretty convincing singer, and the ballads like the stirring “Sirens” serve her well. I’m not suggesting that the pop ballads are tasteful or serious pop music (her leather-lunged rendition of “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from her crappy movie Burlesque is the epitome of Michael Bolton-style grandiosity)- they’re not – they’re campy, junky pop, but a lot more attractive than the mind-numbing dance thumpers.
A few years ago, there were rumors that Cher was holed up in Nashville recording a straightforward country-pop record, similar to the kinds of albums she released in the 1970s. I wish she followed through with this impulse, instead of surrendering to the more commercially-successful dance diva persona that bought her millions of new fans. As it stands Closer to the Truth is really two halves of two different albums – it’s too bad that she didn’t trust herself enough to follow through on the more authentic second half.