With its strikingly lurid pink-and-black punk graphics showing the star glowering like a hopped-up minx, Mad Love is a splashy tribute by Linda Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher to the current rock & roll revival. At the creative helm is a fresh Los Angeles whiz kid, writer-guitarist-arranger Mark Goldenberg of the Cretones, who composed three of the tunes here. Another California rocker, Billy Steinberg, contributed the Buddy Holly-like “How Do I Make You,” in which Ronstadt frankly imitates Deborah Harry. Juxtaposed with these L.A. power-pop products are three Elvis Costello songs: “Party Girl,” “Girls Talk” and “Talking in the Dark.” Cover versions of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad” and the Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go,” both vintage 1965, suggest connections with Costello and Goldenberg on the one hand, and the British Invasion and Brill Building pop on the other.
As its title indicates, Mad Love‘s theme is passion — not the reflective, yearning romanticism that’s infused most of Ronstadt’s best work, but brutal, nervous, teenage sexuality. Linda Ronstadt doesn’t really try to embody an Eighties high-school rock & roller; she’s too knowing and refined a singer for that. Instead, she strikes a pose somewhere between her personality (and public image) and the characters in the songs, who are generally younger men and women. Vocally, she exaggerates the punchy, abbreviated diction she used in “Tumbling Dice,” “Living in the U.S.A.” and her impersonations of Warren Zevon’s roustabouts. That this pose comes from the head, not the heart, will undoubtedly alienate New Wave purists, since the essence of punk is furious spontaneity, and Ronstadt’s “spontaneity” is calculated down to the smallest phrase and tiniest breath. No matter how tough she acts, she can’t help sounding pretty. Indeed, all through Mad Love, the tension between Ronstadt’s sweet romanticism and the bluntness of the material creates a number of problems that have more to do with the artist contradicting her natural inclinations than with the interpretations themselves.
The arrangements strike the same attitude as the singing. Utilizing one or two guitars with lots of fuzz tone, organ-dominated keyboards, bass, drums, very few backup vocals and no sweetening, the settings are bleak, spare and downright hermetic. What little drive Mad Love has is muted and mechanistic: every take sounds like the 200th. Such studio meticulousness lends the music a desolate ethereality that’s as unreal as Ronstadt’s vocal punkiness. It’s hard to imagine these performances live because the “crudeness” here is so high-tech chic.
Elvis Costello’s compositions are probably the worst casualties of this salon approach. Costello’s songs boast some of the snappiest melodies in all of rock & roll, but as Ronstadt demonstrates, their lyrics aren’t easily penetrable. Battle-grounds of rage, frustration and fearful longing, they demand an unpretty voice like Costello’s and fierce, clanging settings. By treating Costello’s work as pop lieder, Linda Ronstadt and Peter Asher simply undermine its neurotic urgency.
Ronstadt sings “Party Girl” in the first-person singular, thereby becoming the girl to whom Costello originally addressed the tune. This silly idea changes the song from a desperate declaration of love into a murky tear-jerker whose pathos is underscored by the most lethargic of tempos. “Girls Talk” comes off as a ringing high-school anthem to teenage gossip rather than a fiery expression of sexual paranoia. “Talking in the Dark,” a number that vents the psychotic extremes of hostility and need, is sung with a jaunty macho swagger that barely acknowledges Costello’s shrewd craziness.
Ronstadt is much more at home with Mark Goldenberg’s lusty, uneccentric power pop. “Mad Love” and “Cost of Love” are catchy rockers that dress up traditional pop sentimentality in pseudopunk drag. In “Justine,” Linda Ronstadt takes a big chance by playing a boy trying to communicate with an unfeeling lover. “Justine, you know just what this kiss will mean to you/Justine, don’t forget about the little things our hearts do,” she shouts in a strangulated, Elvis Costello-Graham Parker hiccup. Flung against a cheesy stadium-organ backdrop, the performance is a small acting coup.
In Neil Young’s “Look Out for My Love” and Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad,” Ronstadt’s singing is somewhat less affected. Her easygoing version of the former (reminiscent of Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love,” but lacking a dance beat) turns Young’s ominous growl of warning into innocuous country rock. Even “Hurt So Bad,” a song that should suit the singer’s honeyed bel canto to a tee, is pretentiously gussied-up with halting, girlish gasps.
More than any other Linda Ronstadt album, Mad Love raises fundamental questions about the relationship between studied interpretive singing and rock & roll. Can rock & roll — supposedly a disposable, spontaneous pop form — yield to the sort of academicism with which Asher and Ronstadt invest it? Does it lose its life as soon as it becomes “serious”? Or, treated “seriously,” is it transformed into something that’s neither art song nor rock & roll? (There’s nothing on Mad Love with one-tenth the sensuous wallop of “Up to My Neck in High Muddy Water,” which Ronstadt recorded years before she became artistically self-conscious.) Obviously, the emotional range of every interpretive singer, from Barbra Streisand to Rod Stewart to Bette Midler, isn’t much wider than their personalities and musical abilities allow — i.e., fairly narrow. If so, then at what point does a pop vocalist’s assumption of an alien personality cease to be courageous and seem merely foolish?
Everyone will have different answers to these questions. But the fact that Ronstadt, one of the world’s finest pop singers, should pose them when she could just as easily repeat a tried and true formula is admirably gutsy, if nothing else.
Still, Mad Love is sadly ironic in a way that could hardly have been intended. The care and reverence of the performances and arrangements, rather than enhancing the material, unwittingly insult it. Instead of giving the rock & roll revival and its artifacts a middlebrow stamp of approval, Linda Ronstadt and Peter Asher have mounted the pop-music equivalent of an opulent and expensive exhibition of New Wave paintings that they don’t even begin to understand. Though Mad Love isn’t a major exhibition, it’s certainly a fascinating failure.