It is the summer of Cher. With a new single, television appearances, and, most recently, a triumphant performance at Pride in NYC, the diva is a back and better than ever, continuing a remarkable career that she revived in the late 90s. The album that revived that waning career, of course, was the dance-pop gem, Believe, which had a lead single that ruled charts around the world and established Cher as electronic/club artist after years as a rocker. Though it marked an aesthetic shift for the singer, the dance sound suits her well, especially as the songs are strong pieces of pop that center around her quintessential themes of love and perseverance.
The album gets off to a bold start with the title single, "Believe"--a thumping dance number and, notably, the first track to bring auto-tune to the mainstream. Even after fifteen years, it sounds remarkably good; the autotune is tasteful, the chorus opens up to give Cher's voice space to soar (with a bit of echo effect), and the beat is generic but firm. What is notable about the song--especially how it expands at the chorus--is that it allows Cher to sound strong, which was an important pose for her to take after several years of being considered a has-been. That sense of strength is what made the track a great success; it makes you feel good to sing along.
Strength and love are the threads that unify the rest of the album. Cher chooses to fill the record with two kinds of tracks: songs of new age philosophy about the universality of love and break up anthems about picking yourself up and moving on. The break-up anthems--"Believe," "Strong Enough," "Run Away," "Dov'e L'amore," and "All or Nothing"--were all singles and solid works of dance pop. They each have a good hook and solid beat, they allow Cher to belt the chorus, and they texture her already great voice with echoes, auto-tune, and layering to make her sound goddess-like. The tracks all work, and they could still be staples on any dance floor, either in their original form or freshly remixed.
Yet, the most interesting tracks are the philosophy songs. These tracks were criticized when the album was released, condemned as Cher aping Madonna's guru-pop a la Ray of Light. However, that criticism is misplaced, and Cher's new age music has an aesthetic all its own. Cher takes an older, wiser perspective than some other divas and she is interested in finding connection with the listener rather than preaching to them. Take for example, "The Power," which is about loss touching everyone as well as that loss and love binds all of mankind together. Cher belts, "Open up your eyes and see. It won't take you long to understand just how lucky I am" which she follows with "It's stronger than anybody man has ever made." The stance here is rather complicated; the singer is grateful for all she has been given, but is also "driven crazy" about forces outside of her control; wealth and fame will not save her, just as they will not save anyone else.
Cher continues with her meditations on the dreamy "Taxi Taxi" and "Love is a Groove." Both are arty, existential songs that play with rave and trance sounds. "Taxi Taxi" is about a spiritual pilgrimage in a cab during which the diva wants to go to "the other side" for a meditation and to see "love's sweet revelation." On the surface, the track could just be seen as an ode to sex, but it's not. Instead, it's a dream scape with references to Orpheus and visions of crashing this imaginary car into a rainbow. The track is followed by "Love is a Groove," which is a poetic journey around the world that observes love as the force that binds everyone. Though it returns to the same idea as "The Power," this song is lighter, featuring softer percussion and beats. The climax of the piece finds Cher meditating, "Look back towards the see. Who brought this mystery? Deep in another world, someone is listening," a vision of god that she follows with a beautiful delivery of the concluding verse: "On this ship in which we sail, everything is possible. Keep on turning like a star till you get to where you are. If I promise not to laugh, will you promise not to cry? Will you promise not to let this life slip by?" It's a lovely moment that shows the singer reaching to her listeners and showing she cares for them, many of whom, at the time of the album's release, were gay men living in a very homophobic world. Cher's music provides comfort and safety for these battered, undervalued fans.
The albums closes with a re-envisioned fan favorite, "We All Sleep Alone," which is both a break-up anthem and a track about common experience. The song effectively ties the two threads working through the record, providing a tidy and thoughtful conclusion that also marries Believe to Cher's back catalog.
Because she is seen as a camp figure, the artistic merits of Cher's records, like the excellent Believe, often go under-appreciated. However, Believe is a cohesive, strange, smart, and loving record--something that can be rarely said about music that achieves such tremendous success on the charts. This is why it has aged so well and why it is a record fans, like myself, return to. Believe was the first album I received with my first CD player, and it has done a lot to shape my musical sensibility, which sides with good hooks, clean production, and (often) meditative tracks about love and spirituality. While I eventually moved on to more transparently arty and difficult records, I still find pleasure in Believe because of how masterfully it is written, performed, produced, and assembled. I imagine that is the case for many of Cher's listeners, and perhaps someday music critics will revisit the record and see its strengths.