Growing up in Chicago, as a teen music nerd, I would hop on the #22 north-bound Clark Street bus and hop off on Belden Avenue to visit my second home, the Tower Records on Clark Street in the Belden Centre. The Belden Centre was a multi-purpose building, with the Tower taking up its second floor. To get to the record shop, you had to climb concrete stairs outside and walk through a covered walkway into the store. (During the winter, you could also ride the escalator from the ground floor.) Every Friday night, while my friends hung out in the mall or at someone’s house to play video games, I would go to Tower, my after-school job money burning a hole in my pocket.
When I would make my weekly trips to Tower, I rarely knew what I would get. I never went to the store with a purchase in mind. Instead, I would wander through the vast store, strolling through the different parts, including the rooms that would house the more esoteric records, taking it all in. My favorite room was the pop vocals room. That’s the room where I would park myself in front of the Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland CDs and start flipping through the options, like they were thick decks of playing cards, hoping to find something I didn’t own before. On one of these shopping jaunts, I started idly making my way through the alphabet, beginning with the letter ‘A’, and I stumbled on Basia’s The Sweetest Illusion when I made it to ‘B’.
It was the cover that caught my attention first. The image was of a dark-haired beauty looking over her shoulder. She wore a tight black top and a voluminous, diaphanous white skirt. A trio of Pierrot clowns flanked her. The image reminded me of Edgar Degas’ Two Dancers on a Stage. Like Degas’ dancers, the woman in the picture had a fluffy white skirt that shot out from her body like a tent. The cover – created by artist Halina Tymusz – was rich and beautiful, an odd but captivating blend of impressionism and photorealism. I often pick up music if captured by the image on the album cover. So, the beguiling look on the woman’s face, somewhat cryptic, like the Mona Lisa, made me stop. Tymusz’s strong effort made me curious about the music I’d hear if I picked up the record.
So, I bought Basia’s album, brought it home, and casually showed it to my mom, who was pleasantly surprised. “Oh, Basia. She’s Polish. Basia Trzetrzelewska.” My family was made up of Polish immigrants, and though I was thoroughly Americanized, my mom was still staunchly proud of her Polish roots. So much so that, in her mind, everyone was Polish. That joke on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the Greek patriarch insisted that everyone and everything had its roots in Greece? That was my mom. So I was skeptical until I looked at the liner notes and saw the writing credits, which did list Basia Trzetrzelewska (along with Danny White) as the composer of most of the songs on The Sweetest Illusion.
What’s more, when looking at the lyrics, I saw that two of the tunes included Polish-language lyrics. Though not particularly nationalistic or patriotic, I felt a strange kinship towards this woman even before I heard a note on the album. Once I listened to it all the way through, I was surprised. Most of the Polish music I was exposed to was through my grandmother, and it was either church hymns, classic standards, or folk songs. To my surprise, The Sweetest Illusion was a stylish collection of sophisticated jazz-pop, soul, and dance-pop songs. The deep, textured colors on the album cover reflected the kinds of multi-hued colors and sounds on the record. The Sweetest Illusion turned out to be a great purchase because it quickly became one of my favorite albums and would eventually dovetail with my love of global pop and contemporary multicultural Europe.
Basia was born in Jaworzno, Poland, in 1954, and by the late 1960s, she was already singing and performing. In the 1970s, she joined the all-girl band, Alibabki, singing with the outfit briefly before briefly joining the legendary Polish rock band, Perfect. In the early 1980s, Basia left Poland for the UK, hooking up with Danny White and Mark Reilly and performing as Matt Bianco. The trio released a debut album, 1983’s Whose Side Are You On?, which featured Basia’s vocals on the UK top 20 hit single “Get Out of Your Lazy Bed”.
Despite the band’s success, there were tensions within the group, namely because White encouraged Basia’s creative growth, much to Reilly’s chagrin. “When it came to the second album, Danny wanted me to be more involved,” Basia said. She pointed out, “We started to write songs together and showed them to Mark, and immediately there was a problem.” Reilly’s diffidence to Basia and White’s work led the two to work on her solo record, while Reilly continued with Matt Bianco with a different lineup. The result was 1987’s Time and Tide, which would go platinum in the USA and earn Basia several charting singles, including the top 40 title track. Basia would see even greater success with her sophomore album, London Warsaw New York (1990), selling over two million copies and scoring more charting singles on the pop charts.
It took Basia over four years to release her third album, The Sweetest Illusion. She wasn’t silent during this time, nor was she retired. As a stop-gap, her label put out an EP of remixes, Brave New Hope, which tied Basia to her queer fans and affirmed her success in the dance clubs. Some of the time taken between her albums could be chalked up to the demands of success. After London Warsaw New York took off, especially with the warm reception to the hit single, “Cruising for Bruising”, Basia embarked on a world tour and put in a lot of promo appearances on talk shows. Returning to Poland to be with family meant it took some time before The Sweetest Illusion was finally released.
Like her two previous studio LPs, The Sweetest Illusion is a cornucopia of musical genres and styles funneled into a mainstream, pleasant pop sound. Basia’s musical influences and tastes, as heard on the album, lean heavily toward Black American popular music, including soul and jazz, Brazilian jazz, and bossa nova. And as with Brave New Hope, she also has a relationship with dance-pop and club music. When trying to sum up the dizzying, varying sounds that make up the thick quilt of sound on The Sweetest Illusion, Basia explains, “We’re… pop, but we have that jazz influence, so we’re not straight pop… it’s more ambitious.”
Ambition. That’s an interesting word choice to describe The Sweetest Illusion. So much pop music released in the mid-1990s reflected a time in popular music when labels poured lots of money and resources into their products. That largess is reflected in the rich, voluptuous sound on The Sweetest Illusion. It feels as if Basia’s label – Epic – spared no expense when funding it. Basia’s record came at a period in pop music when hardcore gangsta rap and grunge dominated record sales and the pop charts. Hard, aggressive sounds from the West Coast and Seattle were shredding memories of the high-tech, high-gloss sounds of the 1980s.
Like many artists who came of age in the 1980s, mainly because of MTV, Basia had to contend with a much different musical landscape than the one she experienced at her peak. The one thing that shielded her from the angst that other popstars felt was that even at her commercial height, Basia was essentially an A/C, adult-pop artist whose audience could have been described as somewhat niche. Though she sold millions of albums, she never reached the kind of success of similar artists like Sade, Swing Out Sister, or Gloria Estefan. Basia was far from obscure, but she wasn’t trying to maintain her grip on the pole position of the hit parade, her move into the 1990s was a bit easier and more graceful.
Like London Warsaw New York, The Sweetest Illusion is an album that embraces and celebrates multiculturalism, as Basia herself is a living embodiment of the Polish diaspora – a similar diaspora that saw millions of Poles leave their homeland for Western Europe and America, very much like my own family, who left for France before eventually settling in Chicago, home of arguably the biggest Polish community outside of Poland. Perhaps because of her lifetime of moving around, Basia’s ongoing musical education reflected that global POV. In England in the early 1980s, she saw the post-punk New Wave and New Romantic movements. With Matt Bianco, she became an early practitioner of the sophisti-pop genre, which took elements of New Wave, jazz, synthpop, and jazz to create a lively pop cocktail. These disparate influences and her musical upbringing at home made their way onto the tracks on The Sweetest Illusions.
When you listen to “Drunk on Love”, you hear some of that ambition Basia mentioned in the interview. It’s a dramatic yet frisky, uptempo track that touches upon Basia’s love of jazz, pop, and dance. There are even some echoes of acid jazz in the tune. Danny White’s piano playing recalls early 1990s house pop, and the percussion is lively and energetic. Basia’s honey-sweet vocals zig and zag, and she does some nifty scatting, accompanying Kevin Robinson’s enthusiastic trumpeting. The song sounds more organic than the more synthetic work she did in the 1980s, though it still maintained the heavy studio gloss of 1990s pop music.
The song sounds very much like London of the early 1990s, and Londonphilia is reflected in the music video, directed by Nick Morris (who helmed Basia’s “Cruising for Bruising” video). To pay homage to Basia’s adopted homeland and bring the song to visual life, Morris places his star in Soho, pairing the song’s quick tempo and energy with the frantic energy of Soho, with its chaotic nightlife.
The single’s link to nightlife is also reflected in its suite of remixes released that year. Queer audiences and dance fans embraced the track, giving Basia her first number-one hit when “Drunk on Love” reached the summit of Billboard’s dance charts. The remixes not only brought out the UK-based acid jazz but found influences of American gospel, as well. On Roger Sanchez’s 12-minute epic remix, heavenly vocals wail over glistening pianos, sampled synths, and slamming beats. The song struts on the Downtown Club Mix with the added percussion and backbeat. The sleek 40 Oz. of Love Dub streamlines the track, recasting it as a deep-house tune, with a churchy organ as a highlight. And on the Hands in the Air Dub, jazzy pianos strut like runway models, creating an exhilarating house-pop euphoria.
The first single, “More Fire Than Flame”, harks to Motown. Horns blast, and a strong, almost simple beat dominates the song. Reimagining herself as a 1990s Martha Reeves or Diana Ross, Basia belts over White’s pounding on the piano. It’s funkier than what she usually records but is a good representation of the different kinds of sounds of Black American pop music that influenced her work.
On “Yearning”, The Sweetest Illusion‘s first US single, Basia and White compose a moody, restrained ballad that simmers with a longing. Basia’s beautiful vocals are matched by Incognito’s Mark Anthoni’s superb singing. The song’s message of alienation and wanderlust is punctuated by Polish lyrics, which Basia idly croons, accompanied by the ghostly sounds of whale calls. The final single, “Third Time Lucky”, is a sprightly jazz number that embraces Basia’s love of bossa nova.
Though it wasn’t released as a single, the lovely “She Deserves It/Rachel’s Wedding” is an excellent love ballad that saw Basia joined by Mariah Carey protégé, Trey Lorenz, who released an excellent self-titled debut album two years earlier on Basia’s label. Lorenz’s soulful croon was a heavenly match for Basia’s smooth warbling. Though “Drunk on Love” was her big dance hit, if her label had pushed the angular, funky title track and commissioned a slew of remixes, it surely would have made just as significant an impact in the clubs.
A few years back, I wrote an essay for this site on London Warsaw New York, which also was a paean to the EU, specifically after Brexit. The Sweetest Illusion was released when the UK was still in the EU; it was the project’s early days when there was hope and optimism about this cultural and political coalition that would unite different communities and cultures. Basia’s multi-ethnic, multicultural sound was both a testament and illustration of that optimism. The Sweetest Illusion would be the last studio album she’d record for a major label. Though a gold-selling success, some saw the record as a commercial disappointment compared to her previous efforts, both of which went platinum.
The following year, Epic released Basia on Broadway, a live album recorded at the Neil Simon Theatre, while promoting The Sweetest Illusion. Her last project with Epic was a greatest-hits collection released in 1998. After that, Basia would go on several periods of privacy, recording sporadically for indie labels, briefly reuniting with Matt Bianco in 2004 for an album before returning to the studio for her first album in 15 years, 2009’s It’s That Girl Again, which showed off Basia’s new musical direction: a smaller, more intimate kind of jazz-pop which she continued to explore with her 2018 release, Butterflies.
Listening to The Sweetest Illusion now, especially when listening to Basia’s subsequent studio releases in the 2000s, is to hear a passage of time and the shift in an artist’s sound and oeuvre after leaving behind the heady decadence of a major label and pop stardom. The music on It’s That Girl Again, and Butterflies is very good – some of the best she’s ever recorded. Still, the expansive, global sounds of The Sweetest Illusion make the record very special. Like the best pop music, it takes me back to different parts of my youth and adolescence. I’m back at that Tower Records. Or I remember the UK that was seemingly far more global and international.
The album speaks to my migration from Poland to France to the US and the UK. Like Basia, I’ve picked up various cultural ephemera along the way, like burrs that get stuck to my pant leg when I walk through a forest. When I look back at The Sweetest Illusion (a record I still listen to a lot), I find that its impact on my musical growth is a lot like its music: subtle, simmering just beneath the surface, but one that was important not just because of the music but because of what it represented.