Thursday, March 25, 2004


£150?!?! Think about it, pop fans. Someone is having a laugh at your expense. This is the cost of the best seats for Madonna's one night only show at Earls Court as part of her Re:Invention tour. If you can only afford a mere £50 you'll have to be content to sit at the very back, content to watch a mere speck dancing around the stage. Still, at least the speck will probably change costume quite a lot. Are 101 costume changes really worth that kind of money though - and is it really worth £100 more to be at the very front of Earls Court - that place is a cavernous hell hole regardless of where you're seated. I won't be attending - but I'm hoping the title of the tour isn't a misnomer. For much of her career, Madonna has made self-reinvention a habit, cultivating a perpetually shifting image and persona. In recent years, however, she seems to have settled into a more predictable maturity. She had become consistent and dependable. Occasionally, this has produced fantastic pop music (most of 'Ray of Light' and the less self-conscious moments on 'Music'). The 'American Life' album seems a little staid and graceless - it's no real step forward from 'Music' and doesn't seem to add much to her iconic legend. She's never been the greatest of singers either - she can hold a tune, but has little expression or control. She is therefore better described as an intelligent entertainer. At that price, she had better be entertaining - she had better re-invent herself again.

Another artist seemingly obsessed with re-invention is Prince. And he's back on a major record label. Sony have agreed to distribute his new album 'Musicology' worldwide. It's not as if Prince ever went away - initially his irrational madness and impulsive behaviour made for entertaining speculation, even whilst the quality of his output was deteriorating markedly. More recently, however, he seems to have become an elusive, even marginal figure. Reportedly an active Jehovah's Witness - and making preposterous concept albums such as N.E.W.S. available from his website, he has remained prolific, without connecting with the millions of people that admire his best work. I heard the title track from the new album on radio 2 last night - which was bizarre in itself - it's been ages since I last heard a brand new Prince track on a national radio network. It's instantly recognisable as Prince - and is characterised by his full and adventurous vocal arrangements. Musically, it doesn't sound all that audacious, despite its lack of formal structure, but that's maybe just because Prince pushed the envelope as far as he could during the 80s with his string of classic albums. Nobody else has produced a body of work as consistently astonishing as his albums from Dirty Mind through to Sign O' The Times, certainly not his legions of imitators. It seems that now he's re-embraced the name everyone knows so well, and returned to the commercial world, we'll be hearing a lot more of him.

Reinvention is certainly the name of the game on the new album from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. Will Oldham has obviously enjoyed confounding expectations here, taking a fan-voted selection of his greatest songs under the Palace moniker, and re-recording them with a selection of extremely proficient Nashville session musicians. Much of this album is remarkably cheesy - there are full vocal choirs, glockenspiels, unashamed lead guitar frills and even sax solos. None of these things are what we have come to expect from the usually stark, darkly humorous songs of the last three Bonnie 'Prince' Billy albums. Some of the songs actually benefit from unrestrained and expansive arrangements. 'Ohio River Boat Song' - essentially a folk song in its original form anyway - works perfectly as a slice of honky tonk Americana, with plenty of rapturous pedal steel. The new version of 'Riding' is as dark as anything he's produced, with a sinister string arrangement from the extremely talented Andrew Bird (check out his album 'Weather Systems' on Fargo records - it's well worth a listen). Elsewhere, Oldham just seems to revel in pushing things to almost comic extremes - the cooing choir on 'The Brute Choir' being the most obvious example. 'New Partner', one of his very best songs, is smothered in brass and guitar for an almost gospel re-take. I find it undeniably stirring, but some people seem to resent Oldham for burying the tune at the heart of the song. Whatever your take on these new recordings - they certainly make for a striking contrast with the sparce, occasionally aimless atmospherics of his last album ('Master and Everyone'). At the very least, they make a convincing case for Oldham as a significant artist, striving not to repeat himself. He is still a genuine original, sometimes deeply moving, often wilfully unpredictable.

So - what am I doing to re-invent myself? At the very least, I'm going to enjoy my trip to Scotland this weekend, which is a well-earned break and a chance to catch up with some close friends. I'm in a state of limbo, not writing or recording music, barely even performing it, certainly not working with it. I need to kick some doors down, create something interesting, vent my frustrations, be more pro-active.

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