Before I say anything else about Cher’s first album in more than a decade, a word about my bona fides: The very first album I bought (on vinyl, thank you) was Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves in (gulp) 1971. I was eight years old. How my parents did not have the faculty to pull me aside and say, “We have something to tell you,” I will never understand.
The point is, I have been listening to Cher belt, warble, and shriek for longer than, frankly, anyone should. In her oddly long career as an object of pop culture fascination, Cher has been known as many things — a maneater, a fashion trailblazer, a fashion disaster, an outspoken liberal, an Oscar-winning actress, a quixotic mess — but she has never really been known as a great singer. Her longevity in music stems less from the fact that she is her generation’s Ella Fitzgerald than for the fact that, like death and taxes, she just refuses to go away.
There has been much ballyhoo about Closer to the Truth, Cher’s first album since 2002’s Living Proof, in part because it marks her 805th “comeback,” though no one ever seems to know exactly where Cher is coming back from. One of the more interesting things about her career is its lack of any linearism: Cher works for years to achieve success in some arena, then seems to become quickly bored and vanish from said arena for years, hence creating the need for yet another comeback. During the 1980s she fought Hollywood through gritted teeth to be taken seriously as an actress, starting with Robert Altman’s Broadway play (then 1982 film) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; an Oscar-nominated turn in Silkwood (1983) begat a starring role in Mask (1985), then three critically acclaimed roles in 1987, ending with her Oscar-winning role in Moonstruck. So naturally Cher did what anyone who had scraped for a decade to build a film career would: She essentially quit. Not counting cameos, she’s made five films in the 26 years since. Part of that is due to the fact that with her odd, frozen-in-time looks roles are now hard to come by. But mostly, it’s Cher being … Cher.
All of this preamble is meant to hit home one point: Cher’s success has come from (and in many cases, despite) her doing whatever the hell she wants. So in Closer to the Truth I was looking for something brave, something new, something out of the box, here in the latter stages of her storied career. What I got was, well, not that. Closer to the Truth? More like Recycled from the Nineties.
The “truth” is that the best song on the CD is the one that isn’t on it, the unreleased but leaked “The Greatest Thing,” a duet with Lady Gaga that had gays foaming at the mouth when this summit of the titans was announced. Alas, Gaga evidently found the track subpar, resulting in its toss into the musical dustbin. While those who have heard (and illegally downloaded) the track may agree it’s not, well, the greatest thing, it’s certainly better than most of Closer to the Truth. “The Greatest Thing,” produced by RedOne, boasts an impossibly catchy hook and vocals by two of the biggest divas in the universe, and would no doubt have rocketed to the top of the charts and radio airplay even if it is, as one online commenter noted, something that sounds like a Disney princess anthem. I have to admit: I’ve been listening to it for weeks.
Which makes what did make it onto Closer to the Truth that much more frustrating. In fairness, at age 67(!) Cher is in fine husky-voiced mettle here; she sounds fucking amazing. But the first single, “Woman’s World,” is a good foreshadowing of the CD’s entire content: loud, brash, and, frankly, dull. We’ve heard this all before: In “Song for the Lonely,” in “Strong Enough,” in “If I Could Turn Back Time.” They’ve all begun to blend together. In 1998 Believe was a breakout, a departure at the time (and a long-overdue gift to her gay fan base), and possibly the best album of her career. (Though I personally anoint 1995’s forgotten It’s a Man’s World, a haunting, gorgeous collection of cover ballads, for this honor.) But in recycling Believe yet again some 15 years later, Cher is binge-drinking at the Fountain of Youth. As with her film career, she’s missed a golden opportunity to get it right, to do something unexpected or surprising.
At its heart Closer to the Truth is a dance album and not a terrible one, just a disappointing one. “Woman’s World” will no doubt become a staple of sloppy bachelorette parties, and the equally grooving “Take It Like a Man,” featuring Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, is an overt wink to the gay boys who have kept Cher afloat for decades, even if the whole song sounds like she’s trapped in that plexiglass booth she stood in for the “Believe” video. If there is one glaring flaw with the up-tempo numbers on Truth, it’s the ghastly overdubbing, trickery, and steroidal Vocoder use that at times makes Cher sound like an alien. What was novel and unique on “Believe” now just sounds tired and so 1998.
The CD’s clunkers are on its first half: the forgettable “Lovers Forever,” which Cher co-wrote (I’ve listened to it five times now and still can’t recall the melody); and “Red,” which features — wait for it — Cher seemingly rapping (’nuff said). “My Love” is a vanilla effort (and made me pine for the exquisite, swelling, similarly titled “The Way of Love,” from Gypsies); “I Walk Alone,” co-written by Pink, at least had a slightly different sound, akin to Philip Phillips’ “Home,” as if someone should be clogging to it. The one track worthy of your “music to listen to on the StairMaster” collection is the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head “Dressed to Kill,” which is also, at under three minutes, the shortest song on the entire album. Every time I listen to it I picture a montage of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. (I am either imaginative, or just old.) This should be the second single released, which only guarantees it won’t be, just as Cher screwed up releasing the coyote-wailing that was “Strong Enough” as the second single off of Believe instead of the impossibly addictive “Taxi Taxi.”
It is ironic, then, that the best numbers on Closer to the Truth are not the high-octane dance tunes, but rather the ballads tucked away in the back. The 9/11 ode “Sirens” is Cher’s voice as its gentle, haunting, vulnerable best, a chill-inducing throwback to “Geronimo’s Cadillac” (1975) and “Heart of Stone” (1989), two other plaintive and affecting songs overlooked in the Cher canon. “Favorite Scars,” a seemingly autobiographical nod to the singer’s tabloid love life, carries a slight honky-tonk beat that’s as effective as it is surprising. “I Hope You Find It” (a cover of Miley Cyrus, no less) has the feel of a song that starts over the closing credits of a movie, and features Cher’s too-rarely-heard falsetto, piercing right to the heart. And “Lie to Me” carries echoes of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me (If You Don’t).” (The deluxe edition contains three bonus tracks: the Diane Warren–penned “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from Burlesque; the Timbaland-produced “I Don’t Have to Sleep to Dream”; and “Pride,” a dance-y, blatant play for anthem status at every Gay Pride celebration from here to Sydney.)
Closer to the Truth isn’t the worst solo album Cher has ever put out (an honor that goes to 1991’s appalling Love Hurts), but it’s hardly the wildly new, breakout sound she’s been huckstering on Twitter for the last two years, either. I can’t help but wonder what the album could have been with the finished Gaga duet (or any duet, really — how cool would Cher and Robin Thicke have been? Or Cher and Michael Bublé? Or Adam Levine?), or more songs that had better hooks, innovative melodies, or clever lyrics. As she has her entire career, Cher seems to promise her hardcore fans the things they crave (starring in a TV remake of Mame, singing the great standards, as she teased with her snippet of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in the 1999 film Tea With Mussolini), then wanders off the reservation and does exactly what she wants. Which may explain why we gays worship her so devoutly and forgive her so often. Because even when she’s disappointing us she’s refusing to compromise, refusing to be anything than who she is. Refusing to apologize. And bringing us all, perhaps, a little closer to the truth.
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