’ve never quite understood Streisand haters. Sure, she’s a diva, she’s the epitome of “Hollywood liberal” (a silly phrase if ever there was), she seems a bit of a megalomaniac… but how does that detract in any way from her rather massive talents? She’s a decent-to-good director (okay, scoff at all of the infamous leg shots, but The Prince of Tides is superb melodrama, and she got Nick Nolte to give one of his best performances ever), she’s a fine actress (especially in musicals. Two words: Funny Girl), and as a singer, well. That voice of hers is so supple, so rich, how can it be denied? That’s not to say Barbra is always the best judge of material—far from it. Which can make it all the more interesting when Ms. Control Freak hands the reins over to someone else.
A quarter-century ago, Streisand did just that, putting herself in the hands of the hottest producer and songwriter on the planet at the time, Barry Gibb. The resulting album, Guilty, is a modern pop classic and the best-selling title in Streisand’s catalog, which spun off the singles “Woman In Love” (her last #1), the sumptuous duet “What Kind of Fool,” and the title track. In honor of that album’s 25th anniversary, she decided to give it another try with Guilty Pleasures. The album cover is a mimic of its predecessor, except that this time Streisand and Gibb are wearing black in front of a black background (the first time, it was all white). Also like Guilty, the new album features two duets with Gibb, who cowrote and coproduced (with John Merchant) the entire record. But do these Pleasures capture the same magic as Guilty?
In a word, no, and Barry’s to blame. The biggest problem is that Gibb produced Guilty Pleasures as if it’s still the ‘80s. “It’s Up to You” is only slightly poppier than the work he did with Kenny Rogers (its cleaned-up would-be-Delta guitar licks are the tip-off). “All the Children” sounds like an honest-to-God Bee Gees’ outtake (or maybe b-side). “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away” is a cover of a hit by Barry’s late brother Andy, for pete’s sake! Gibb’s even still partial to tinkly keyboards which sound like crappy Casio tinkly keyboards. On “What Kind of Fool,” in 1980, he could pull it off. On “Don’t Throw It All Away,” in 2005, not so much. (I know it’s an intentional “Remember the good old days?” thing, but it still irritates even as it works.)
Actually, no, the production isn’t the biggest problem of Guilty Pleasures, but Barry’s still to blame: these songs, particularly lyrically, are awful. More than one track here seems to simply be strings of non-sequiturs randomly placed together, as if written by a computer program. From “Night of My Life”:
I fight to the end for the night of my lifeWhat the hell does that bunch of babble mean? And I’ve not even mentioned the gem “Your dark became my night” from “Without Your Love.” Babs, you’re better than this.
And nothing can get in my way
And love is a river
And river is ocean
Take of your pleasure
And all that you cry for
I go to the wall for the night of my life
I play every game that you play
I shout out my struggles and
Send out a message to you
No early warning
I’m under the radar
Where the lyrics here aren’t nonsensical, they’re strands of bathetic pearls: “It’s Up to You” is the ultimate please-walk-all-over-me anthem for masochists everywhere, and “Hideaway” actually includes the couplet “Maybe we’ll shuffle off to Rio/A little Rio de Janeiro.” Thanks for clearing up which Rio, kids. Musically, it’s not much better, with the keyboards layered on as thickly as bad butter cream icing on a grocery-store birthday cake. Gibb takes a maximalist approach to these songs, always adding more instrumentation where less might do nicely.
Two songs—count ‘em, two—work against the tide. For all the problems with its production, Streisand’s cover of “Don’t Throw It All Away” works nicely, bringing back those warm Guilty feelings; the song fits her voice, too. “Above the Law,” one of the Gibb duets, meanwhile, succeeds despite its own insipid lyrics (“The pleasure is the punishment for the crime,” et.al.), thanks to the fact that it’s produced like a warm bubble bath – and that Gibb sounds as if he’s swallowing his own words before he can sing them through the first bars of his verse (it’s an appealing affect, really). Unsurprisingly, the one positive constant here is Streisand’s voice, which has lost not an iota over the years. She’s got an adept touch with pop songs—that hasn’t changed. These days, however, pop has changed, something that sadly neither Streisand nor Gibb seems to have realized. In Bel Air tonight, they’re partying like it’s 1982, while the rest of us weep for what might have been. Guilty Pleasures has all the guilt with none of the pleasure.