SONIC REDUCER Fierce. Bad. Doth Beyonce Knowles and Michael Jackson protest too much? More than two decades separated them, along with crucial biographical details, gender, and a kind of comfort in one's skin. Yet both drink deeply from the same well of R&B pop perfection, after emerging, solo, from the safety and suffocation of the family-like combo. Both faintly evoke Jackson's go-to mom for Prince, Paris, and Prince II (a.k.a. Blanket), Diana Ross. Both walk that tightrope of personal vulnerability and arena-friendly theater, the real and the fantastic, artful display and emotional artifice. Both have been philanthropists, ready with a vision to heal the world, and armed with a staunch commitment to spectacle and an iron will (to entertain) encased in a sparkly or titanium robot glove.
But entertain a morbid thought: if Knowles were to crash and burn her Thierry Mugler motorcycle breastplate during her current "I Am ... Tour" said to out-razzle-dazzle all predecessors with its aerial flips and 70-some costumes would she be revered like Jackson? She's made her share of great, timely, and timeless singles: "Crazy in Love," "Baby Boy," "Irreplaceable." And you can easily hear Mikey within the tender whisper-to-a-scream "If I Were a Boy." But Knowles' bifurcated self unsettles on I Am ... Sasha Fierce (Sony/Music World, 2008), an album tidily separating in two, its ballads and bangers distributed between two discs, as if simuutf8g vinyl.
Sasha Fierce is a clear bid for album-like complexity, depth, and, gak, maturity. It leads with the earmarked-as-important slow dances and power ballads and disrupts the single-centered paradigm, making us wait for the champagne-bubbly, bustling "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." Surprisingly old-school in its marriage-minded sentiments for a woman who makes a point of touring with an all-female band, the track hints at the cognitive dissonance that makes Michael Jackson studies so rich. Given time, Jackson might even have wanted to tweak his beauty to mimic Knowles' healthy naturalism, rivaled only by Rihanna's as current pop's beauty standard.
Sasha Fierce succeeds as a long listen, settling in likeably and ingratiatingly despite irritants like "Ave Maria" and "Video Phone," which recall the ways in which B'Day (Columbia/Music World, 2006) blustered and annoyed. Its crafty, minimalist sections hint at moments spent listening to electro remixes and MIA. As with MJ, it's tough to separate the dancer from the dance: I can't help but hear Beyonce singing to Jay-Z in her protests against being treated as less than one of the boys. Now declaring the "Death of Auto-Tune," he's the talented shadow hanging over the production, another male counterpart to her executive producer and father, Matthew Knowles. Is it audacious to imagine her breaking from those intimate ties and finding her own Quincy Jones? To wonder if hipsters will be dancing to B's songs with nostalgia or irony or blissfully encumbered by neither two decades from now as they do to Michael? I'm looking forward to the moment when Beyonce resolves her two B sides and merges the woman in the mirror with the woman making the music.
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DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE DUSTS OFF ITS EXTRAS
I suspected Death Cab for Cutie had finally arrived while browsing the juniors' department of Macy's and being stopped in my tracks by the video playing on the TV monitors: it was "I Will Possess Your Heart," off Narrow Stairs (Barsuk/Atlantic, 2008), the combo's first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200.