I finally own my own copy of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, which for years I knew as a pristine cassette rip courtesy of my sister. It’s weird looking back to this era in her history. Erotica was a commercial setback, but of the kind that only worry insider pundits (like Obama opining on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrest — remember that?). She bounced back quickly. In early 1994 she released “I’ll Remember” from the With Honors soundtrack: a #2 smash that at the time inspired a lot of Maddie dilettantes to nod along and think, “Hmm, she really can sing after all” (this was a couple of years before Evita, to which I’ll return). However, like “Angel” and “Causing a Commotion,” it’s been written out of her history; to my knowledge she’s never performed it on her recent tours. But second single “Take a Bow” was her biggest hit since “Like a Virgin,” and she still uses “Secret” as a showcase for her boring acoustic guitar skills.
After more than ten years’ distance, I listened to it this afternoon and could hum every tune, but facts are facts: it’s the most expendable of her nineties records (I don’t count the Evita soundtrack). In many ways Dallas Austin and Dave Hall’s productions have dated worse than Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray’s; but it’s a testament to Madonna The Producer that she reins in their tendency towards tinkle: lots of well-arranged strings (the subtle, sumptuous “Love Tried To Welcome Me” is the most underrated ballad in her catalogue), bassist Meshell Ndegeocello adding bump ‘n’ grind on a few tracks, and the last showcase for her pre-Evita croon, the best example of which is “Take a Bow.” The insistent “Bedtime Stories” throbs with enough ice-on-fire to make me wish Maddie had offered the Bjork-Nellee Hooper songwriting/production team enough dough to author her post-Bedtime Stories output. The album tracks aren’t anything special, but they’re better than Like a Virgin’s or True Blue‘s. Ever the careerist, she seizes contemporary R&B as a lifeline; she confuses “soft” productions for “human,” acting as if the dance floor prowler of Erotica was an act she could laugh off as a night’s misadventure with a few glasses of wine and a tab of X. But did she really think a hook as indelible as “Secret” could make us forget where she went with “Words” and “Bad Girl”? Did she expect a flourish as professional as the Babyface-guided “Take a Bow” to withstand comparison with “Deeper and Deeper” — did she know “Deeper and Deeper” was the darker and darker prototype? Therein the ghosts of Shannon, the New Order of “Perfect Kiss,” and a half-dozen deep house acts remind Madonna of how the dance floor becomes the proscenium on which we reenact psychodramas with neither script nor direction.
Ah, superstars — they’re supposed to confuse us.