When Cher released All I Really Want to Do, she was 19 and embarking on what would be a legendary career as an entertainer. She and Sonny Bono had scored their first hit as a duo earlier in the year with "I Got You Babe," and the young singer started a solo career that was meant to run in tandem with her Sonny and Cher records. The girl we hear on All I Really Want to Do balances her inexperience with charm. Working her way through folk-rock standards (including two Dylan covers that book end the record, the title tune and "Blowin' in the Wind") and some Bono-penned originals (like the masterful "Needles and Pins"), her alto reveals both a maturity and inexperience. Her unconventional vocals carry pathos and yet she has less control of her voice than we will hear on later albums.
Much like youth culture at this time, Cher was just beginning to understand the complexities of her world, as well as her career. In many ways, she was wiser than her years--living with an older man, facing at first vitriol then success because of her unconventional hippie looks, and traveling the US and the UK on that success. Her vivacious youth permeates All I Really Want to Do, which works as a folk-pop record that focuses more on love than politics. The material suits not only the young singer, but also the time--a year when the protest culture we often associate with the decade was still in its infancy. The album is a delight--especially in contrast to some of the polished mainstream pop the diva would later produce, not to mention her first disco album just 14 years later.
Fast forward four years and much has changed. Cher released 3614 Jackson Highway to a very different audience, many of whom had more on their minds than romance. Anti-war protests had escalated. Though they enjoyed some big hits just a couple years before, pop culture left Sonny and Cher behind as anti-war music gripped the mainstream. The world had changed, and Cher had grown up as her career waned. It's important to note 3614 is Cher's sixth solo album and her first not produced by Bono. His missing influence may be why it is the first album to feel like an authentic Cher record. Though it was virtually ignored by the public (stalling at 160 on the Billboard 200), 3614 Jackson Highway is a remarkable artistic achievement. Music writer Mark Deming calls it "the finest album of career" up to that point. It certainly ranks in the top 3 of my favorite Cher records.
3614 succeeds because it allows Cher to work with bolder material than her earlier efforts, including masterful renditions of the protest songs "For What It's Worth" and "Sittin On the Dock of the Bay." Producer Jerry Wexler--famous for his work with Aretha Franklin--puts Cher's voice front and center, as well as flavors the record with Southern Soul. Cher is also a stronger vocalist, and these may be the best vocals of her career. You can hear control and phrasing not present on All I Really Want to Do, marking her matured skills as an interpreter. 3614 is a very different record than her debut, but then again it arrived in a different America; it's interest in protest tunes, heartbreak ballads, and Americana mirror the skeptical times. Just looking at the album cover shows how much Cher had changed with the world around her: featured with her band, she's no longer a spirited, hopeful girl but a mature woman working off the beaten path.
Though she would take forays into different material throughout the rest of career, I would argue that 3614 Jackson Highway and the late 60s have had more influence on her recording career than anything else. The styles she tried out on the album would reappear later, including the rock vocal she sports on "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" that would manifest in her 80s albums, and the soulful heartbreak tunes that would become her bread and butter throughout her career. In fact, her dance records may show her strongest ties to the music she made in the late 60s and to politics of the time. Many of her club tunes focus on the brotherhood of mankind, a generalized spirituality, and hope in the face of romantic and cultural challenge. (You could write a whole thesis about the parallels between 3614 Jackson Highway and her 2013 album, Closer to the Truth, but that's a project for another day.)
Ultimately, what I am saying is that Cher was forever changed by 60s and the art she made during that time. She forever lives in the wake of that period, and so does our nation. We continue to look back on the 1960s to understand where we have been, as well as see what we can learn from those challenging years--even those of us who would not be born until decades later. In 2017, I hope the artists and pioneers of the 60s--not only leaders like MLK and JFK, but pop figures like Cher and Stephen King--inspire us and give us hope.