The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, July 13, 2007

Rihanna, take three, starts with the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle – it is only available on British copies – with the initial precipitating tragedy. “My mind is gone, I’m spinning round,” she quivers quietly on the song “Cry” over circuitous piano as she watches the one she thought was The One curtly walk out. She casts herself as the victim, but there is a residual defiance which will remain with her, and in her: “I’ve got all the symptoms of a girl with a broken heart, but no matter what, you’ll never see me cry.” At the end she adds “…all my life.” Following this, the quietest song on the record, the ensuing story depicts how hard it will be to live up to that pledge.

From its opening, querying string swoops – like “A Day In The Life” in reverse – “Good Girl Gone Bad” sees Rihanna predicting her own fate, if she’s not careful, while outlining the carelessness on the part of others which could lead to it, namely “We wuz at home ‘cos you left us all alone”; so they go out and try to wash it all away with momentary thrills – “Now she’s in the club with a freaky dress on” and still coming across as the victim. There is a menacing threat to her warning of “You’d better learn how to treat us right” since “once a good girl’s gone bad…we die forever,” followed by a terrible low synth drone already set in stone.

“Question Existing” is a warped waltz, its detuned electronics not that far away from Some Deaths Take Forever – and what an album title that would have made for Rihanna had the story been told in a slightly different order – with its joyless grind of bass and inhuman handclaps, all circling like video vultures around the singer as she contemplates the literal existing question of “Who am I living for?” and the partly rhetorical question of “Can I endure some more?” “Sometimes,” she remarks, prematurely exhausted, “I feel like they want me to lose,” before she goes into a Dear Diary section which the Shangri-Las would have understood immediately (remember that she is only nineteen and this is how nineteen-year-olds think), and it’s not even particularly about celebrity: “Entertainment is something I do for a living,” she intones, “It’s not who I am.” She could be anybody in a freaky dress, or anyone in a day job, since we all have to “act” and “entertain” in order to hold onto such things. “I hurt…I think I suck sometimes,” she double-entendres, immediately followed by an unconvincing, offhand “ooh yeah.” Finally she addresses her soul, and therefore the world: “Who wants to date me for who I am? Who wants to be my friend for who I really am?” Bear in mind that “friend”…it will mean everything later in the story.

With “Rehab,” whose pledges, rhetorical or otherwise, are no more convincing than those of Winehouse’s, she seems to have reluctantly taken “him” back but has almost immediately regretted it – “I guess that’s what I get for wishful thinking,” she sighs, slightly the wiser but none the less hurt. The male voice will appear in several hidden, ungraspable disguises; here Justin Timberlake portrays the inarticulate brute with his mirthless “uh”s and “ladies,” sniggering at her both in front of her and behind her back.

She then tries to find solace in materialism; “Lemme Get That” has a disruptive brass band stumbling through Timbaland’s blotched beats as she curls in her Florida drawl, drooling over “five car garages” and “all them Versaces,” snidely wanting new furniture, things, money, pretending that she doesn’t give a damn, that money is all that matters, that that’s the way everyone else does it so why shouldn’t she? But that New Gold Dream synth quietude at the end indicates second thoughts. “Sell Me Candy” seems to go down the same sex and monetarist route but halfway through she seems to awaken from a trance, beginning to betray her real self again: “I wanna live for both of us,” “I wanna warm you and not get colder,” and the eight different ways in which she twists and stretches the word “love.”

“Say It” finds Rihanna caught between two worlds; the whirligig of the crazed synths, like an R&B ballad mis-looped by Stock, Hausen and Walkman, on one hand, and for the first time on the record, the classic soul ballad template on the other. She’s interested but she’s trying to get him to break down and be honest; note the unusual insistence on the “baby”s of “Baby, baby, don’t be shy.” As she tells him that “Some things, baby, are not worth hiding,” we increasingly wonder who’s doing the real hiding here; with her increasingly intense entreaties to “Tell me what it is you like” and “Maybe you could stay the night,” she’s the one who’s sounding as if she’s hiding, trying to justify her lust, or conceal some shame at same…or maybe she’s just been chiding herself all along.

The record’s one fully-fledged duet, “Hate That I Love You,” is likewise carefully weighted, since Ne-Yo’s androgynous high tones initially make it difficult to decipher who’s singing what, and really it still sounds like Rihanna singing to herself; but let’s presume that he’s broken his emotional barrier and she’s become sufficiently convinced to go off with him, and yet it’s not really working out. There isn’t much evidence of real joy or give and take here (“You know the power that you have,” insists Ne-Yo, “You’re the only one who makes me laugh.” But in this situation, is that enough – and anyway, what, if anything, is he laughing at?). The final exchange of “so”s sounds like a suicide pact in the making.

She’s far from settled. “Shut Up And Drive” finds her mind stuck in an April 1983 oldies radio show; in between filters of “Little Red Corvette” and “Blue Monday” she nevertheless gives a confident demolition of all the corny car/sex metaphors you ever heard, even taking a sideways swipe at Gwen (“What you waitin’ for, for, for?”), but despite the cartoon police sirens and closing car crash the honesty still smuggles itself out (“You keep sayin’ that you will, boy – I wish that you would!”).

It’s all symptomatic of her having been betrayed again, having fallen into the exact same trap. “Breakin’ Dishes” is Beyoncé’s “Kitty Kat” in hell; he’s out all night (relish the bitterness of Rihanna’s “3.30!”) but instead of silently mocking him for what he’s missing, she’s lost it altogether, and in contrast to the reluctant acceptance we saw in the first few songs she is now sick of sitting down and taking it (those opening “Ow! Ow!”s). She extends the “cool” of “supercool” into five Satanic syllables, and instead of just getting up and leaving (“Good Girl Gone Bad”) or saying that her mind is going (“Cry”), her mind has now definitely gone (“I ain’t demented – ha! Well – just a little bit!”), her rage red as she smashes the place up, bleaches his clothes (“I ain’t gonna stop ‘til I see police lights!”) and eventually settles into a chant of “A ma-he-ha-ha-an!” which after a while begins to sound like an elongated “Amen,” and thus the song takes on the robes of a ritual prayer, just as the world is being systematically destroyed from both sides. “I don’t know who you think I am!” she howls…but does that necessarily mean she still knows who she herself is, since otherwise who is she living for?

After that catharsis there’s nothing for it but for her to go back to that selfsame club, with or without a freaky dress – or, like the heroin(e) of “Angie Baby,” is she only imagining she’s at the club, while in reality the same 1983 oldies show is playing in her mind? “I wanna take you away,” she proclaims on “Don’t Stop The Music,” though the “please-don’t-stop-the!” loop becomes manic. She still seems to be entertaining, and dancing with, and pleasing, herself (“This is a private show”) – but what if, just perhaps, she isn’t? What if there actually is someone there, patiently waiting for her to notice him noticing her, and what if after a while she is actually dancing with him, touching him, feeling him? Note how the beat seems at the beginning of the song to be emanating from some distance away, as though she’s standing, confused, outside the club, wondering whether or not to go in; and how, by the song’s end, she inhabits the centre of the music, which throbs like prime Underworld and refracts the ghost of Michael Jackson (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”) through the trick mirrors of identity as if, possibly, just possibly, she’s found the right person.

There is definitely somebody else present in “Push Up On Me,” even though you hear only her, and it’s still 1983 megamix time (“Running With The Night”). “We break…break” (or should that be “brake”?) she whispers, “We breakin’ down.” Now she has not only the confidence to respond to somebody true but also the openness to recognise that truth. “And let’s play a game/I won’t be a tease!” And once again, she urges him, now far more passionately, to open up to her: “I wish you would light me up and say you want me.” She doesn’t want to put him off, but is anxious for him to realise that despite all the accumulated pain, she’s no pushover: “You wanna get me out of my dress!” she winks knowingly at him…and then the buried emotions of Rihanna come to the surface, as they have always threatened to do, with her now anguished “I wish you would!” And yes, this time, this time…she might just do it.

And they do it, and it is done. For the only clearly defined male vocal performance on the album, Jay-Z comes on stage as a one-man Greek chorus to sum up the tale and introduce the liberation of “Little Miss Sunshine” as raindrops of synthesisers pitter and patter around the beat. Now Rihanna is grown; she sees “magazines” and “shiny cars” and “these fancy things” as detours, red herrings, ultimately destructive things; she has found The One; she knows neither he nor she can ever be perfect; but then they are human beings, not gods, and she believes in him deeply enough to swear an oath.

With that pledge a true rainbow of keyboards swells into the picture as the camera pans outwards and she realises the real meaning of “freedom”; “When the sun shines we’ll shine together,” and that she’ll be his friend – “Told you I’d be here forever,” “Gonna stick it out ‘til the end.” It is now “raining more than ever” as they stand on the roof of a world ruining and destroying itself – but of course it can be “raining more than ever” inside a woman, too. “Know that we’ll still have each other” (and note that subtle case against the isolationism of Nick Drake’s “Know”) she sings with kind authority, and yes, he can stand under her umbrella, ella, Ella, ey, ey (such extended syllables! Such definitive and positive decisiveness – the vocal equivalent of Levon Helm’s snare drum) because actually he’s not that confident, maybe not confident at all, and doesn’t he feel pain too, even if it is necessarily of a different nature to hers? That shyness was, after all, real: “Together we’ll mend your heart,” and over the swirling middle eight she reassures him, “You can run into my arms, it’s OK, don’t be alarmed!” because when everything is said, done and sung, it is always the truth, we are not here to see through each other but to see each other through; the world seems to rise above the sun with Rihanna’s “I’ll be all you need and MORE!”

And then, anticipated at 3:43 but consummated at 3:49, that almighty aposiopesis, that glorious chord change/modulation/enhancement/deepening which I have not heard in any pop record since the days of prime Thomas Leer, that moment of holy deliverance which really we have been awaiting for the whole record, and in my case for a quarter of a century, since I have imagined it on countless underperforming pop records but now the impossible virtue becomes a triumphant reality…”Ooh baby it’s raining, raining…Come in to me…Come into me!” The shelter and the relief, the spiritual and the carnal, the delayed happy ending to Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walkin’ In The Rain,” maybe the last great pop song before the world drowns…and in that final fadeout, when she’s singing “It’s pouring rain!” in that suprapunctum of a Southern voice, it sounds as though she is finally admitting herself the permission to cry, but it is unmissably a cry of joy, of trembling awe…the only possible ending to Good Girl Gone Bad, made all the more miraculous by the fact that the record appears to tell its story backwards.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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