What do you do for an encore after you've sung some of the greatest theater songs of the last 50 years?
That was the challenge facing Barbra Streisand as she began to assemble her first studio LP since "The Broadway Album," which surprised many in the music industry by hitting No. 1 on the national charts three years ago.
Streisand seems to have found the right solution on "Till I Loved You," her 40th (!) album, which arrived in record stores Tuesday. It's a lush, romantic LP that is reminiscent of the albums that made Streisand a superstar in the '60s.
But deciding on the right direction to take after "Broadway" couldn't have been easy.
The Brooklyn native couldn't very well follow that Grammy-winning LP with another album of Broadway standards. That would lead to charges that Streisand was milking her success and living in the past. Linda Ronstadt heard those same grumbles when she followed her 1983 triumph, "What's New," with two more albums of '30s and '40s pop standards.
Streisand also couldn't just pick up where she left off before "Broadway," because her 1984 album, "Emotion," was a severe critical and commercial disappointment. People seemed to reject the idea of Streisand, then 42, trying to compete in the contemporary pop/rock arena with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.
What's a nice Jewish girl to do?
Streisand bought some time by releasing a live album last year, but now the moment of truth is at hand. And Streisand, whose keen commercial instincts have aided her many times over the course of her high-profile career, appears to have chosen wisely again.
She has decided to focus on new songs, rather than fall back on repeating the "Broadway" formula. She also seems to have given up on courting the MTV crowd--though she should appeal strongly to their folks.
"Till I Loved You" is a loosely structured cycle of songs about a romantic relationship. Side 1 focuses on the joys of a new love, Side 2 on the sorrow surrounding its ending. If all that sounds suspiciously like those Rod McKuen/Anita Kerr albums from the '60s, relax: Streisand never belabors the concept. Honest.
The best track on the LP--one that provides a link to the theater orientation of "The Broadway Album"--is Andrew Lloyd Webber's "All I Ask of You" from "The Phantom of the Opera." The song has the stately dramatics of the composer's "Memory" (which Streisand recorded in 1981), but is much warmer and less grandiose. It's one of Streisand's greatest recordings.
The same cannot be said of the title track, a duet with Don Johnson that's the first single from the album. The mellow ballad from the musical "Goya" is pleasant but unmemorable, and the Streisand/Johnson vocal pairing is a mismatch. You almost feel sorry for Johnson--who sings just well enough to get by--as he struggles to hold his own with the pre-eminent female vocalist of the modern pop era. Where's Neil Diamond when you need him?
"The Places You Find Love," Streisand's first collaboration with star producer Quincy Jones, opens the Columbia LP with the kind of wide-screen, cast-of-thousands style that characterized Jones' 1982 sessions with Donna Summer. The chorus features a gospel-shaded backing choir featuring such all-stars as Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross. It's a dramatic, dynamic kick-off but, like the futuristic treatment of "Somewhere" that opened "The Broadway Album," it seems just a bit much.
Streisand seems more comfortable on the second song, "On My Way to You," a lovely, philosophical ballad by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The singer also sounds right at home on "You and Me for Always," one of three songs written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. The song has a warm, embracing melody and a gentle backing chorus that provides an effective backdrop for Streisand's piercing lead vocal.
The vibrant "What Were We Thinking Of" and the stately "Some Good Things Never Last" are the stand-out tracks on Side 2.
A few cuts are just average--their mediocrity amplified rather than camouflaged by Streisand's steel-belted delivery. But the album represents a marked improvement over "Emotion" in that Streisand is no longer trying to compete with singers half her age for the hearts and minds of the teen-agers who buy singles and watch MTV.
Streisand had strong appeal to the contemporary pop/rock audience for about 10 years, from 1970 ("Stoney End") to 1980 ("Guilty"). But when the love affair cooled, Streisand had the good sense to return to her old, classic sound.
It bears remembering that Streisand had a pretty successful career going before Top 40 radio discovered her, and she'll probably remain on top even after yielding center stage on pop playlists to Whitney Houston and Miami Sound Machine.