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Cher’s take it or leave it attitude is arguably her most endearing quality. But as far as her music goes, it means that many of her best songs remain obscure — they’d almost certainly never feature on a Farewell tour setlist. Being a Cher fan is an embarrassment of riches, but for those who don’t actually own every single one of her 25 studio albums (32, if you count her duet albums with both Sonny and Gregg Allman, plus her one album tenure as lead singer of metal band Black Rose), then today is your lucky day.
Cher was a ’70s covergirl in more ways than one, gracing magazines, but also re-recording just about every song going. This was for good reason: her top-rated TV shows were full of such numbers and it made sense to release albums following a similar formula. Following “I Got You Babe” with Sonny, the 1970s were like a second-wave of popularity for Cher. Her TV specials showcased her talent not only as a singer, but as a comedienne, actress, model and presenter. Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves isn’t so much an album as it is a souvenir of her immense, one-of-a-kind celebrity at its unique peak. The bisexual balladry in “The Way of Love” provides atypical access into her androgynous allure — the album is not without surprises.
After getting drunk on disco with her Take Me Home LP, the follow-up Prisoner is almost too Cher to function. Although it failed to hold the charts hostage, it is certainly the more captivating of her Casablanca offerings. Cher reluctantly recorded Take Me Home, and so on Prisoner she sought to rebel by sneaking in as many rock tracks as possible. Lacking any true sure shots, the album is unquenchably Cher, with all her Cher-isms cranked up higher than any drag queen could ever impersonate. You better sit down kids — it’s a wild and wanton ride.
Representing her first notable musical shift, Backstage is unsurprisingly one of her most neglected works. Much of the album melds into a bluesy atmosphere, highlighted by the singer’s increasingly deeper crooning. A real standout is the subtle “Carnival,” where Cher opts for a more subdued approach that only increases the richness of her vocal quality. Dreamy track “It All Adds Up Now” is a more familiar romantic vehicle, and the simplicity of “Reason To Love” is another bold stroke that pays off. Her cynical and seething reading of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is made all the more delicious by the fact that the folk icon absolutely hated it. Scaring the bejesus out of Dionne Warwick, “A House Is Not A Home” is another well-trodden choice of cover, but the arrangement is elegant and sincere. Her best ’60s album is exquisitely jarring — or else simply exquisite.
On this notably theatrical album, Cher hit the gas with yet another number one single — the eponymous title track. Much of the material wasted no time in offering lusty narrative-driven pop songs, padded out with the usual cover versions. With a voice that hits you like the metaphorical transport, “Train of Thought” and the snarling “Dark Lady” both cackle and rattle along with bewitching flair.
If much of the world-conquering success of the single “Believe” was down to an element of surprise, Living Proof knew exactly what it aimed to achieve. Using her dance-orientated career best seller as a blueprint, Cher once again worked with British producers Metro (Enrique Iglesias, Dannii Minogue and Anna Vissi), while trance auteurs Chicane were also given a call. The results were nothing short of dazzling (“The Music’s No Good Without You”), ludicrous (“A Different Kind of Love Song”) and sublime (“You Take It All”), all while often sounding like a leaking battery thanks to her newfound love of the vocoder. It is ironic that most reviews would focus on such studio trickery, as a novelty beginning to wear thin, as she has rarely sounded better ––her husky timber outdoing herself on the rousing lead single “(This Is) A Song For The Lonely.”
Cher began the ’90s as an Oscar-winning actress with a penchant for biker mama imagery, toy boys, tattoos and plastic surgery. But by 1997, people were starting to disregard the award and only think of her as a punchline for countless sexist and surgery-related jokes. Cher’s label put it to her that her most loyal fans were gay men and questioned why she was persisting with rock ballads. They looked to an album called Fresh! by the cult Australian dance diva Gina G for inspiration, even going as far as recording one of that album’s outtakes (“Runaway”). Originally offered to another Australian icon, Dannii Minogue, the song Believe took time to become the mega hit we all know. It ultimately took ten days to record — vocoder effect and all — and the rest is history. Whilst its title track rightfully takes all the glory, the luxurious house grooves courtesy of Todd Terry (“Love is The Groove,” “Taxi Taxi”) don’t trail far behind.
Back when it was her chart positions that were paralyzed and not her face, and before she enjoyed one of her routine comebacks with the power ballad “I Found Someone,” there was one attempt that often goes under the radar. This album paired her with most of the collaborators that she would work with on her following three, but of all her Geffen releases it is only on I Paralyze where the one-size-fits-all power-rock formula is not relied upon. The country grind of the title track is one of her all-time favourites, “When The Love Is Gone” is an after-hours torch ballad that screams Blanche Devereaux: The Musical, and the gallant electronic stomper “Back On The Street Again” recalls ABBA and ’80s fitness clothes. When Cher hollers “you’re as real as a dollar bill” it’s hard not to fall under her charismatic spell.
On 2013’s Closer to the Truth, Cher turned back time to 2001 on an album that sounded mostly identical to her previous effort, Living Proof. However, she wisely lets some air out with a career-high torch ballad (the agonizingly beautiful “Sirens” is truly a bookmark of her career) and some radio-friendly adult contemporary fare (“I Hope You Find It,” “Favourite Scars”), giving it a broad appeal encompassing fans of her many different eras. With lavish dance songs boasting choruses that blast louder than some of her 2 a.m. emoji-littered twitter spats, songs like “Take It Like A Man” and the shimmering Mary Kiani-esque “My Love” serve considerable wallops of groove. When the lava flow of disco is interrupted, it’s a trifle sacrifice when the songs are as delightfully daft as “I Gotta Walk Alone” (which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of her pop-orientated ’70s albums).
While for some, Cher’s three successful Geffen albums were more scrap metal than authentic rock, on It’s A Man’s World she took to softer blues influences, recording songs all made famous by men. Success in America had once again cooled off, whereas in Britain she had recently enjoyed a number one single credited to Cher, Chrissie Hynde, Neneh Cherry and Eric Clapton on the Country ballad “Love Can Build A Bridge.” It’s A Man’s World wisely focused on similarly softer sounds than her most famous work. Both “Angels Running” and “The Gunman” in particular prove once again what a fine interpreter she truly is. The sensual anthem “One By One” and gospel-tinged “Walking In Memphis” were both top 20 hits and the album was a moderate success in Britain. It was given a RnB remix for the US market, but it is the original European pressing where its reputation rests as perhaps her most accomplished record to date.
Stars is Cher’s blazing masterpiece: a soaring artistic treasure and commercial suicide. For the first time in her career, the songs here are all crafted around her. Devouring Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” with a vocal that can only be described as animalistic, there isn’t a howl out of place. Emotionally and physically, “Just One More Time” (the sole original recording on offer) stretches the singer to her vocal limit — her rarely utilized falsetto falling nothing short of astonishing. She hits a gospel jackpot with her reading of “Geronimo’s Cadillac” — those female Elvis tags well and truly earned. The meditative title track possesses a tenderness in contrast to all her most famous pop culture moments, with her vocal control pushing her further artistically than ever before (and since). Although Stars seemingly fizzled out on the charts without anyone noticing, the album remains an array of hidden gems, and is her true musical autograph.
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