Sunday, April 25, 2010

Madonna: Still "Breathless" 20 Years On

Alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna was without question one of the biggest music figures at the close of the 1980's. Paying attention to the trajectories of established pop figureheads Cher and Donna Summer, Madonna's blend of music and image was pushed to new and unthinkable heights in the birth of the MTV age. Important to understand is that as rapidly as Madonna's image changed and caused conversation, her music did the same.

By the time 1990 arrived, Madonna was riding high on the across the board success of her fourth album Like a Prayer (1989), which elevated Madonna's artistry further. With a  new decade spread before her, how would the lady who defined the 1980's move into the 1990's?

The History
Madonna's fifth long player I'm Breathless was an ambitious tie-in album/soundtrack of original material inspired by her feature film endeavor Dick Tracy. Alongside (then lover) Warren Beatty, the stunning send-up to the beloved comic strip of the 1940's, Dick Tracy starred Madonna as the anti-heroine Breathless Mahoney, a New York nightclub vocalist. It echoed a gesture by fellow decade defining artist-in-arms Prince the year before on his acclaimed Batman recording. Interestingly, Madonna took the idea of her soundtrack/album deeper by incorporating the pop music elements of the '40's period the comic book film from into the album itself.

The Record
Madonna and three men worked over the ambitious I'm Breathless: house music maestro Shep Pettibone, the illustrious Stephen Sondheim, and longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard. Leonard had been an integral cog in previous (and future) stylistic turning points in Madonna's musical paths (True Blue, Like a Prayer, Ray of Light).

Reconstructing portions of big band pop and swing wasn't an easy task, but hardly as difficult as one assumed. Removing several kitsch blunders ("I'm Going Bananas," "Back In Business," and "Now I'm Following You Pts. 1 & 2") I'm Breathless remains one of Madonna's most alluring albums.

In excellent form, pre-Evita/Ray of Light eras respectively, Madonna's voice shined as never before. On the Sondheim sizzlers "Sooner or Later" and "More," Madonna vocally stood toe-to-toe with the music on these pristine pop constructs Sondheim had built. "Sooner or Later" a downtempo, brushed drums, upright bass, brass touched love song evoked jazz-pop in tone and texture. "More" cleverly delivered a paean to materialism over a snazzy rhythm section, think "Material Girl" in '40's glam attire.

Other beauties like the tense tearjerker "Something to Remember" (later featured and used as the title for her 1995 ballads collection), and the darker "He's a Man" had Madonna lyrically explore the pathos of Breathless Mahoney. "Vogue" set at the end of the record, at first, seemed out of place. The classy, sexy, and modern house-pop music creation was intended to be the flip side to the Like a Prayer single "Keep It Together." The title was a nod to the black gay dance styles of whacking and voguing that emerged in the Harlem ballroom scenes of the '80's whose roots dated back as far as the '60's. Lyrically, "Vogue" spoke to the freedoms of self-expression and delivered an amazing tribute listing of various screen gods and goddesses of the period that the Dick Tracy strip was from. That lone thread instantly tied "Vogue" into the retro cool of I'm Breathless thematically.

The Impact
The lead single from I'm Breathless, "Vogue," was released on 3/20/90. It rocketed to number one in 30 countries around the world, including the U.S. and the U.K.
 It was Madonna's largest selling global single to date until the ABBA sampled brilliance of "Hung Up," from her Confessions on a Dance Floor LP, surpassed it in 2005. The David Fincher directed video for "Vogue" received an outstanding nine nominations at the MTV Music Video Awards. Recently, the video was paid loving tribute to on the Fox series Glee.

The album prepared for launch during a period rife with publicity for Madonna. Between the Dick Tracy film release a month later, her iconic Blonde Ambition Tour, and "Vogue's" success, when I'm Breathless dropped on 5/22/90 (6/19/90 in Japan) it promised to be a juggernaut.
The record charted at #2 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and the U.K. Album Chart. Breathless certified double platinum in the U.S. and Canada, platinum in the U.K., and gold in many European markets (Germany, France, Austria, etc.). A second single, "Hanky Panky" was released on 6/30/90, landing safely within the reaches of the U.S. Hot 100 (#10) without the push of a music video. The single proved even more popular in the U.K. where it sailed to the #2 position. Planned singles included "Sooner or Later" and "Now I'm Following You, Part 2" but were scrapped with the unveiling of Madonna's first hits compilation The Immaculate Collection later in 1990. Its subsequent singles were pushed instead.

Directed by: David Fincher

At the time I'm Breathless was a commercial disappointment, it sits at six million units sold worldwide currently. The critical reception it received also varied from the positive praise of Village Voice guru Robert Christgau:

But with its pedigree of wit and musicality, show-tune pop-schlock sure beats the direct-to-Vegas power ballads with which she's heretofore betrayed her dance-rock roots. Especially when she writes it herself--except for the "Material Girl"-inspired "More," the Sondheim tunes are fussy and genteel (with Mandy Patinkin's "well-sung" cameo the nadir), but such fake period pieces as "Cry Baby," "He's a Man," and the risque s&m-lite "Hanky Panky" are all her. This is a woman whose great gift is for the mask. Camp isn't everything she can do, but she sure knows how to do it right.

Some weren't as enthused with the material and direction, but acknowledged Madonna's new found vocal presence, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide remarked:

"Although her singing shows a surprising amount of range, the material tends to be nothing more than cutesy novelty numbers, like the double entendre-laden hit "Hanky Panky."

 Madonna once stated in an interview around the Ray of Light period that she loved every song on this album. It's easy to see why she'd make that statement. Out of all the albums in Madonna's discography, this curiosity radiates the affection of an artist who was entering a creatively fertile time. It took Madonna another try with the muddled Erotica (1992) before she scored her first "album's album" with 1994's Bedtime Stories. I'm Breathless is a record that platformed Madonna's knack for musical reinvention at its most transitional, fun, and uninhibited. Three and a half out of five stars.-QH


undisco_me said...

I must re-visit this album with more willing ears.

Funnily enough, out of the non-single tracks it's Back In Business that I did actually enjoy.

Arguably she was at the height of her powers and impressively holding her nerve to cool down the dance beats almost entirely.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this album after a chance viewing of Dick Tracy. I was looking for the Sondheim music and found Madonna instead -- but I wasn't disappointed at all!

Like the above poster, I really loved "Back in Business". Upon listening for the first time, I was thinking, "This isn't the song they sing in the movie... but... it's kind of... awesome."

The only tracks I don't like are "I'm Going Bananas" which is unlistenable, and "Hanky Panky" which is okay in melody but far too long for its one joke. The rest is surprisingly strong. This album was unfairly maligned and overlooked -- in the 2000s when Pussycat Dolls and Christina Aguilera are milking that retro sound, we've gotta remember who broke that ice to start with.