[5 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there are two things we gay men relish, it’s campy imagery and dancing, especially if the two are intertwined. (Lest anyone accuse me of enforcing a stereotype, please note the tongue in my cheek. Plenty of us are not enamored by either.) Timed with her True Colors tour, which benefits non-profit organizations that advocate on behalf of the GLBT community, Cyndi Lauper cannily plays to this particular preoccupation on Bring Ya to the Brink.
Strobe lights figure prominently on the album. The dusty, almost surreal Polaroid-type artwork depicts Lauper in assorted domestic situations. Upon close inspection, mirror balls dress the background ever so inconspicuously, hanging on a clothes line and resting against a refrigerator. Of course, the imagery alludes to the album’s specific orientation—the dance floor.
Cyndi Lauper has long had a presence in the clubs, so it’s not at all a stretch for an entire album to accentuate things that go thump-thump in the night. Bring Ya to the Brink is a shiny, fabulous realization of her previous ventures towards beats and blips and a far more rewarding enterprise than The Body Acoustic (2005) where Lauper needlessly re-recorded her hits. Here, she co-produces and co-writes 12 entirely new tracks with nearly as many production teams. The high quality rarely wavers with such mix masters as Basement Jaxx (“Rocking Chair”) and Digital Dog (“Give It Up”) at the helm.
The only rather interminable set of beats is the album’s opener, “High and Mighty”. It’s a track begging for some sort of melodic or rhythmic disruption. Instead, it takes the entire “High and Mighty” and the first verse of “Into the Nightlife”, the second track, before Bring Ya to the Brink really delivers on its promise. The monotonous, trance-like movement of the first five and half minutes of the album builds such tension that by the time Lauper sings, “I’ll take you till you’re all spun up” , the release is orgasmic. In that sense, “High and Mighty” is a means to an end. It creates an itch that’s not scratched until the song that follows. As such, its presence is more functional than enjoyable.
Peer Astrom and Johan Bobeck, who co-wrote and co-produced “Into the Nightlife” with Lauper, also assisted with “Echo”. Both tunes boast a similar structure. The verses have an industrial flavor while the choruses explode with a euphoric shower of chunky beats. Lauper knows a good hook and the refrain in “Echo” clings to memory long after the album ends, eight tracks later. To hear Lauper wail in that distinct style of hers on “Echo”, albeit a bit buried in the mix, is an imperishable thrill.
Richard Morel (Deep Dish, Yoko Ono) delivers three of the album’s strongest tracks, all contenders for summer ‘08 dance-floor anthems. The sound of “Same Ol’ Story”, “Set Your Heart”, and “Raging Storm” recalls a time in the early-to-mid-‘90s when dance-pop artists liberally populated the summit of the charts and producer-based acts like Real McCoy, Ace of Base, M People, and La Bouche carved out careers. This is not at all to suggest Lauper’s talent is producer-dependent or that those acts are in the same league as Lauper but rather explain that the appeal of the Morel-produced songs is predicated upon a certain nostalgia.
While Lauper talks down a patronizing lover on “Same Ol’ Story” and interpolates “Where Are All My Friends” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes on “Set Your Heart”, the conversation piece of the trio is “Raging Storm”, a political commentary for the club set. Hopefully, the song will catalyze those completely oblivious of any current news to pay closer attention. Lauper sings about hate, greed, and how the smoke and mirrors of our media threaten democracy. “You can fight for the right to be/but you’re cloudin’ your mind with celebrity”, she admonishes. She addresses her audience directly, implying that though people want their inalienable rights, the tacky allure of celebrity culture often hinders any substantial action.
The heart of Bring Ya to the Brink, though, is music that simply and irresistibly invites listeners to dance one’s problems away. With its rousing directive, a song like “Grab a Hold” seems designed solely to set a sea of hands waving in the air, unencumbered by the travails of an unfair world. However, Bring Ya to the Brink escapes just being a club-tailored album, for underneath the glossy production is some of Lauper’s strongest writing in her 25-year solo career. It’s a gift that even those who don’t get the image of Lauper washing a mirror ball with rubber gloves can appreciate.