Archive for June, 2009

Madonna, Like A Prayer

June 24, 2009


I never actually knew a Madonna that hadn’t released Like A Prayer – I was 7 years old in 1989 when it was released, and it was always as equally available to me as a kid as Like A Virgin or True Blue was – my family had all the tapes, despite my mother’s protestation that Madonna was “so weird.” 


She wasn’t that weird, she was hot – uncomfortably hot.  In that video for “Like A Prayer, that low-cut tank top and her flowing brown hair, I think Madonna was the sexiest she’d ever been before or since – but this, of course, was not the thought of a 7-year-old.  Now with the benefit of being able to put these things in context, it was a bold move of Madonna’s to cap a decade long string of hits with something that had the ability to be more controversial, darker, and sexier than she’d already been – in fact, it’s amazing to think Madonna even courted any controversy in a pre Like A Prayer world (well, there was that thing about humping MTV’s stage in a wedding dress…).


Regardless, Madonna’s cleavage in a field of burning crosses, and making out with a black Jesus was only the beginning for Madonna.  Those iconic video moments in the video for “Like A Prayer” just helped capitalize on that single’s desperately anxious sexuality.  “Like A Prayer” is, I think, Madonna’s best single, and it’s because it’s the clearest she ever was about the exalting power of love and desire, the apotheosis of love and sex being transformative, life altering.  More than that, it was Madonna’s religious call to arms – did God and religion account for everyone standing alone?  For hearing a lover’s voice and having it “feel like home”?  Posing these questions with the help of a gospel chorus was quite a bold move by any standards.


I think about these things because they get dotted along like power lines across the record, a perfectly crafted pop record.  She sings of a desperately failing relationship in “Till Death Do Us Part” (of course, at the time, this must have been Madonna’s answer to tabloid questions regarding her marriage to Sean Penn), of child abuse in “Oh Father,” and – quite gorgeously – takes the perspective of a woman praying to and questioning God to spare the life of her lover, who may get killed, in “Pray For Spanish Eyes.” 


“Spanish Eyes,” with its aching Spanish guitar and elliptically sacrilegious lyrics is, in its way, the most beautiful song Madonna ever performed, and it caps off the boldness of Madonna’s ability as a pop star.  Sure, the album is loaded with a sly bit of empowerment in “Express Yourself,” and a giddy love song in “Cherish,” but there’s no getting away from the snarky seriousness of the material.  Even in a shockingly blasé duet with Prince called “Love Song,” the chorus sings “This is not a love song.”  This is also not a love album.  It fits as a pop record, but it’s the sort of pop touchstone that 80’s music can’t be imagined without – like Thriller or Purple Rain, the pop was perfect, but it was also just the beginning (like those mega records, Like A Prayer was a hit machine with 5 Top 20 hits).


Her boldness climaxes with that gospel chorus picking up again in the final song of the record, “Act Of Contrition,” which is sort of a joke – the gospel chorus now sounds like angels at heaven’s gate.  But it’s also a bold reaffirmation of everything she is.  Madonna hums along her song of contrition and forgiveness, climaxing in “I reserve, I resolve, I reserve… I have a reservation,” and finally yelling, “What do you mean it’s not in the computer?!”  Madonna kicked from the gates of heaven?  It must mean what we get of her on earth in Like A Prayer is far riskier and far more worthy.  Such a banishment has justified 20 additional years of Madonna superstardom and remains the crown jewel of her catalog.


Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

June 24, 2009

I love Neko Case, and in a way, she’s come to a spot where she’s a little overrated.  Just a little.  Let me clarify.  There was a time when I would have thought of Blacklisted, her 2002 record that truly defines her renegade-spirit-with-a-Patsy-Cline-twang persona, as one of the greats of this decade.  I don’t think that now, and not simply becauze 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a better record, but because I’m a little annoyed.  Case is wonderful but idiosyncratic and difficult.  She doesn’t write songs so much as she writes ideas and gives them melodies, and because her voice is so exciting – a classic beauty melded with modern, elliptical subject matter – the song retains the era of floating mood poems.

All that sounds like the description of a real artist, yes?  Of this she most certainly is.  But a great one?  That’s the qualifier.  Do I think of her as fondly as, say, PJ Harvey or Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen?  That is the standard I am hoping for, and I’m not sure all of her work qualifies, as much as I adore her.  Her voice is intoxicating, and how refreshing that in 2002, she moved from making wonderful neoclassical country albums like Furnace Room Lullaby to Blacklisted where she indulged her quixotic, unique style.  That was a very good record surrounding an idea of being true to the odd impulses that guide you.  She sang in its banjo-assault opening number “Things That Scare Me” of blackbirds frying on a wire for no particular reason but to say “I am the dying breed that still believes/ haunted by American dreams.  Hunted by American dreams.”  I felt strongly at the time that I knew exactly what she meant, that I too needed to be true to myself and my own brand of internal strangeness.

But Fox Confessor Brings The Flood pushed that thesis forward, and did a better job of it, too.  In its penultimate song “At Last,” which lasts barely a minute and a half, sings “And if death should smell my breathing/ as it pass beneath my window/ let it lead me trembling trembling/ I own every bell that tolls me.”  She’s singing of the same type of devotion to her own independence (not that there’s a statute of limitations on how many times that subject is ok to sing about), but her writing was not that good, that precise, and that direct.  “At Last” is a song that articulates Blacklisted without needing to be on the record, and coming at track 11 of Fox Confessor nodding towards death, it also reinforces the strange, more viscous theme of Fox Confessor – the struggles of those who are destined to speak, the consequences of their lives.

Of the two women in the album’s opener, “Margaret vs. Pauline,” we find out “One left a sweater sittin’ on a train/ the other lost three fingers at the cannery.”  Of the witness on the second song, “Star Witness,” we learn she lives in a place “miles from where anyone will find you/ this is nothing new/ no television crew/ they don’t even put on a siren.”  Of Case herself leaves a party with a “Valium from the bride” cursing the songs that lied to her with that cry “Hold on, Hold On.”  She too learned to write songs to speak her truth – a far kinder destiny than those around her.  It only gets worse from there – widows of the St. Angel plane crash, Ukranian stabbing victims, love that leads into lion’s jaws, poor John the Baptist speaking of the lord.

That is interesting, in its way, but what makes Fox Confessor great is that it invites you back for discovery with the quality of the songs’ fullness, even the minimal ones that don’t hit the 2 minute mark.  If I were to think of 2006, one song’s melody would follow  me everywhere I went, and that is “Star Witness,” the rare Case original with an unforgettable chorus that’s repeated three times.  This witness knows more than her compatriots on her record and sings about it beautifully, but here, she’s part of a community, and part of Case.  Case, of Ukranian background, breaks out her native tongue for an intoxicating bridge on “Dirty Knife,” and it’s the same narrative thread, in its way, that snakes its way from John the Baptist in a magnificently vivid interpretation of the traditional “John Saw That Number,” as well as moves into “Lion’s Jaws,” a romantic song of anguish and destruction… if you truly ever “understood” it.  On an NPR report on this record (it gathered quite a bit of attention), the report opened up by saying “In a way, the title of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood says it all – you don’t totally get it.”

Maybe not totally, but I do think I do get it.  It’s an exploration of Case’s identity, of the tfox confessorhings she believes to be true – that it is difficult to speak the truth, but you must do so anyway.  She takes that identity and shifts perspective on it, because it’s an idea that has never been simple or fully elucidated, but has always been understated.  There are so many beautiful songs on Fox Confessor, and none flag – even the wandering reverie of the title track takes hold in its murky, sea-green hypnotism – but why it’s great is that ultimately, they’re one endless, beautiful, tragic, liberating song.