ROCK / The new Madonna: romantic and risk-free

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU think life is hard, spare a thought for our poor megastars. George Michael, wasting away in 'professional slavery'; Prince, whose conniving record company hasn't released one of his albums for weeks; and, the most put-upon of them all, Madonna. In 'Human Nature', from Bedtime Stories (WEA, CD/LP/tape, out tomorrow), she laments: 'You wouldn't let me say the words I longed to say .

. . You punished me for telling you my fantasies.'

If by 'punished' she means that her film Body of Evidence died a death, that her S&M bible Sex was less acclaimed than the rival book called I Hate Madonna, that Erotica achieved a meagre double platinum status, then the crime wasn't telling us her fantasies, it was failing to match her own standards. But it is true that the media are at last getting out of bed with Madonna. In America last March, she raised a stink by informing the chat-show host David Letterman about the medical benefits of micturating in the shower. ('I'm serious. Urine is like an antiseptic.') In her defence, it was after the watershed.

In Bedtime Stories she concentrates on vindication, not fornication. 'I'll never be a saint, it's true/ I'm too busy surviving,' she trills in the opening track, 'Survival'. And on the closer, 'Take a Bow', she reveals the influence of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote her songs for the film Dick Tracy: 'Hide behind your smile/ All the world loves a clown.' Madonna is back, and this time it's personal.

She has assembled a posse of big-selling producers - Dave Hall (Mariah Carey), Nellie Hooper (Soul II Soul, Bjork) - and writers, including Bjork herself. Who else could have penned 'Let's get unconscious, honey/ Words are useless/ Especially sentences/ They don't stand for anything'?

Musically, though, Bedtime Stories is not much different from Erotica (1992). In Madonna's words, the album is 'very, very romantic', which is true to the extent that she never boasts explicitly of her sexual prowess, and that all the tracks are mid- tempo. Even the disco number, 'Don't Stop', more or less a remix of 'Into the Groove', is more of an end-of-the-night slowie than floor-filling funk.

This is subtle and sophisticated pop: sprinklings of acoustic guitar here, an orchestra slipping behind the hip-hop beat there. There's not a bad song to be found, and that's exactly what the album is: not bad. In 'Survival' Madonna says, 'Here's my story/ No risk, no glory', and she hasn't taken many risks here. In 10 years' time, when Tarantino directs Reservoir Dogs 2: We Were Only Wounded, his bank robbers won't be in a diner pondering the lyrics of 'Human Nature'.

Yet Madonna's influence is still formidable. The Cranberries' support act at Shepherd's Bush Empire last Sunday was called The Madonnas, and the Cranberries' singer, Dolores O'Riordan, evidently admires the Ciccone undress sense. The Irish lass with the homespun philosophy and the knitted brow attended her recent wedding in a transparent dress and white boxer's boots. Here, a more sober occasion, she sticks to the more decorous white tutu and silver boxer's boots. Her brown mop of hair became a peroxide crop -Madonna meets O'Connor - in time for the new album, No Need to Argue (Island), and lo, the Ethereal Girl is reborn as the Material Girl.

This is a good start for any frontwoman. O'Riordan is also remarkable for her whooping, flutey voice and her breathing technique which. Breaks. Up.

Phrases. Into. Frag. Ments. And in the last year she has learnt not only to play the guitar, but more importantly, to pose with it.

Her weakness is her over- ambitious lyrics. The anti-IRA 'Zombie', while admirable in sentiment and a classic grunge anthem, is a knee-jerk response to the Irish situation, lacking the analytic powers of Sinead.

Where she does match her countrywoman is in grumpiness. Three times she complains that the audience aren't responding with much enthusiasm: a bit rich, considering that her fellow Cranberries are standing around like shop assistants on a slow day. The musicians were already established as a band before they recruited O'Riordan. With her in the spotlight they seem to believe they could pick their noses on stage without anyone noticing. They are intent on joining Blondie and Big Brother and the Holding Company in the pantheon of faceless backing boys. Nor does virtuosity compensate for virtual invisibility. Noel Hogan has memorised the first four chapters of Play Guitar the Johnny Marr Way, and feels no need to read on.

Maybe they are satisfied with knowing that their songs sound as enchanting live as they do on their records, which is utterly enchanting. But there's no need to get complacent.

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