CHER: NOT COM.MERCIAL (2000)
1) Still; 2) Sisters Of Mercy; 3) Runnin'; 4) Born With The Hunger; 5) (The Fall) Kurt's Blues; 6) With Or Without You; 7) Fit To Fly; 8) Disaster Cake; 9) Our Lady Of San Francisco; 10) Classified 1A.
In a perfect world... well, in a truly perfect world, Cher would have been the US ambassador to Armenia. But in a world just several notches below perfection, Believe would have not existed, and Not Com.mercial would be commercial all the way through — if only as a sign of respect for a modestly talented artist to go out there and actually do something. As the story goes, the majority of the songs on this album were written by Cher herself (still with a little help from the corporate people, of course) after she attended a 1994 songwriters' conference (I had no idea they held these, but then again, why not? I bet they hold Mick Jagger impersonator conferences, too!), and the bulk of the album was recorded the same year in France. She then offered the album to Warner Brothers, who turned it down, seeing it as «uncommercial», and had to shelve it for an indefinite period of time. However, once Believe truly hit its stride and brought her all the money she could ever need, she no longer needed Warners' approval — and simply released the album on her own, advertising it through her website.
In a way, this was a smarter decision: Believe, her most successful, yet also most plastic and artificial release in ages, followed by an undeniably personal and «artistic» album that purports to show the world the real Cher, regardless of whether it garners any sales or not — there was no serious promotion whatsoever, not even any singles culled from the sessions, and she never gave any live performances of these songs. Eventually, the album became the same kind of retrospective curiosity as 1980's Black Rose (Cher as a Serious Artist) and has even managed to gain a bit of a cult following; for some old-time fans, it might have even looked like a credible redemption after the intolerable crassness of Believe.
Unfortunately, the only way to make Not Com.mercial look decent is in the overall context of Cher's career curve; on its own, the record is just «listenable stuff» at its best, and «banal mediocrity» at its worst. If Cher really had what it takes to be an intriguing singer-songwriter, we would all be seeing that as early as 1965, and if you need to take lessons in songwriting in order to break out your dormant genius, a priori chances are that the genius will turn out to be a mechanical hack. Melodically, the songs are okay — a mix of generic folk rock and adult contemporary, with a bit of swamp blues thrown in for good measure; not tremendously different, by the way, from the style that would be dominant on It's A Man's World — but there's very little to grab and hold one's attention, unless it happens to be some element that is consciously or subconsciously lifted from some classic, e. g. the moody snowy organ introduction to ʽWith Or Without Youʼ which, naturally, evokes memories of ʽA Whiter Shade Of Paleʼ.
Message-wise, the songs are split between (predictably) stories of complex relationships and (less predictably) «social value» rants that go all the way from corny embarrassments (ʽOur Lady Of San Franciscoʼ, where she complains about a social system that turns people, herself included, away from helping poor old ladies in the streets — oh, my!) to not-half-bad statements on religious hypocrisy (ʽSisters Of Mercyʼ, with a tasteful steel guitar and harp arrangement and a particularly wicked-sounding vocal part that shows she really has a bone to pick with somebody on that issue; not a wise decision to give it the same title as that of a far superior Leonard Cohen song, though). Arguably the weirdest number on the whole record is ʽ(The Fall) Kurt's Bluesʼ: for some reason, Cher decided to write and record a tribute to Cobain, stating that she "understands his pain" and that "we're a heartless, Godless culture / we'd walk nowhere in your shoes". Now just imagine if she'd appeared onstage, all dressed up in the usual chic, at the MTV Awards or some ceremony like that, and delivered this tune instead of ʽBelieveʼ! She even thinks up (or lets her co-writers think up, I dunno) a proverbial killer two-liner for the end: "Our country kills its heroes / We just raise them for the fall". Excuse me for a moment while I break out those hankies, this is just too much for my nervous system to bear.
So, in the end, if you look at this from an optimistic angle, Not Com.mercial is an interesting, image-defying, sincere-sounding record, professionally and rather tastefully recorded by Cher with members of David Letterman's band, and delightfully shattering stereotypes. But if you choose the other angle, then it's a somewhat slick, manipulative, and ultimately bland and generic set of traditionally written roots-pop songs with unwarranted pretense at «depth» and «authenticity», sung by a veteran Vegas glitz-star who has been happy enough to corrupt public taste with cheap, brainless entertainment for several decades, and now goes on a rant about the injustices and the imperfections of that same society as if she had never had anything to do with them. So does she ever sit back and wonder, «Why the hell did those critics kick the crap out of my Not Com.mercial album? I know it didn't sell because it was not commercial, but how come it got all those mixed-to-negative reviews?..» And if she ever does, does she have enough intelligence (or bravery) to give herself the right answer?