They were the best of intentions; they were the worst of intentions.
RTC Stirred by the music she heard at the memorial service for President Clinton's mother, Barbra Streisand began work on "Higher Ground" (Columbia 66181, arriving in stores today), an album of inspirational songs.
As she says in the liner notes, her hope was to fill her listeners' souls "with the breath of life and faith," and so gives voice to the likes of "I Believe" and "The Water Is Wide."
But as much as Streisand may want to pay tribute to a higher power, she can't help glorying in her own musical magnificence. "Higher Ground" is full of vocal pyrotechnics -- all honeyed whispers, powerhouse vibrato and great, soaring phrases -- but it's all hey-look-at-me stuff, more in service of the singer than of the song. It's as if Streisand were unable to distinguish between the fires of faith and her own burning ambition.
As such, "Higher Ground" ends up less a failure than a frustration, the sort of album you can't help but wish were more likable than it is. Streisand's performances may be showy and vainglorious at times, but at least there's some form of passion bubbling beneath the surface. In its best moments, the album gives glimpses of greatness, which is more than can be said for the sweet-voiced cluelessness LeAnn Rimes brings to her similarly themed "You Light Up My Life -- Inspirational Songs."
Take, for example, the impassioned insight Streisand brings to Ann Hampton Callaway's "At the Same Time." Although the lyrics often verge on treacle, Streisand cuts to the song's emotional heart, flavoring each phrase with such caring and compassion that it's easy to get swept up in its lush sentimentality.
That is, until she gets to the song's second verse, where the couplet "Think of all the children being born into this world/At the same time" is answered by -- yes, Virginia -- a children's choir. Whether it is Streisand or producer Walter Afanasieff who deserves blame for that touch, the net result is the same: What could have been truly stirring instead becomes saccharine, its impact cheapened by tacky gimmickry.
But even that seems tasteful and restrained when compared with "Tell Him." Obviously the album's commercial centerpiece, this duet between Streisand and Celine Dion was being touted as the Diva Duel of the Decade, an event whose hype value was immeasurably enhanced when Dion sang a Streisand number in front of a reportedly miffed Streisand at the last Academy Awards show.
Anyone expecting a claws-out display of one-upmanship, however, will be disappointed. Although the song itself is cast as a conversation between a younger woman asking an elder for advice and guidance, it's no "A Star Is Born," with two generations in competition. Although Streisand gets a good dig in early on, answering Dion's opening statement with a slyly catty "I've been there ," the rest of the song proceeds in a disappointingly deferential calm.
It's as if each singer were afraid that she might show weakness by truly cutting loose, and as a result, the performance throws none of the sparks that made "No More Tears" (Streisand's 1979 duet with Donna Summer) such a hoot. In fact, its lax pacing and lachrymose chorus barely manage the kick of a Dion solo single, making this one of the least powerful power ballads in memory.
Disappointing as "Tell Him" turns out to be, at least it's not as embarrassing as "On Holy Ground," Streisand's attempt at gospel music. Though both the song and setting are solid enough, Streisand's singing is too studied to be credible. Unlike Whitney Houston, whose gospel numbers in "The Preacher's Wife" were grounded in a lifetime's exposure to the music, Streisand comes at the song as if she'd never gotten closer to gospel than her record collection. It's a nice effort, but unlikely to convert a single listener.
The song is all too typical of "Higher Ground." As well-meaning as these performances are, too many seem born of duty and diligence, making them more hollow than holy.
Like a parent who takes her children to church not because she believes in God but because she thinks religion is important, Streisand is all surface here, trying to make a good impression but failing to be a good example.
So it hardly matters whether she's wading through "The Water Is Wide" or solemnly intoning "Avinu Malkeinu" -- she's in over her head. And no amount of well-arranged, uplifting material can change that.
Pub Date: 11/11/97