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Tina Turner at 60

By Michael Freedberg

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Tina Turner -- the most muscular soul singer ever -- turned 60 years old this year. And her being 60 is a major reason her new Twenty Four Seven (Virgin) sounds as direct as it does. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Turner learned her craft, there was no room in a pop song for irony, diffusion, skepticism, distraction. A singer had to be righteous, had to testify -- no ifs, ands, or buts. The music, too. Melody and beat went pow! and pow! again, the singer proclaimed, and that was that. Struggle there was, and loneliness and danger, but no matter the difficulty, you knew what was being said, you knew how it sounded, you could hold the truth in the palm of your hand and not spill even a drop.

Such was Turner from 1960's "A Fool in Love" -- her very first hit-single moment and the most feral howl of a sexual-heat song ever recorded -- to the rocketing Turner of "Proud Mary" to the tell-it verities of 1984's "What's Love Got To Do with It" and "Be Good to Me." Such, too, is Turner now. Twenty Four Seven (Virgin) is 11 songs that you can and must believe in, songs in which melody, beat, and lyric say what needs to be said, no more, no less. Add that it is Turner singing these matters of fact and triumph is assured. For Turner still possesses the most ferocious contralto outcry, a voice high and strong without drop or flaw. She soars, as she always has, and she's purer, freed now from both the production acrobatics that 1967's River Deep, Mountain High imposed on her and the dreamy Europop that falsely softened her last CD, Wildest Dreams. From flippy teasing in "All the Woman" and the love-for-freedom stomp of "Twenty Four Seven" to gentle pleas that nudge "Don't Leave Me This Way" (not the Thelma Houston disco hit of the same name), Turner commands your attention, powertripping and sentimental, on fire and on a mission. Diva all the way, you would say, but you would be wrong: Turner never overreaches, never preens for the microphone. Indeed, the steeper the drama that she throws -- disastrous romance in "Go Ahead," horny, show-throwing distress in "Without You" -- the more essential her moves, the more she's in command. The clearer, too, becomes the point she's making.

Twenty Four Seven is produced by Turner's live-in music man, Erwin Bach. He keeps the arrangements simple -- rhythmic repetition, melodic resolution, bridge and break, testifying solo, coda. The era of the sleight-of-hand DJ values difficult moves for difficulty's sake, but that is not how Turner's song scorer does things. Although his simplicities have their own merits, their first purpose is to focus your attention on Turner's vocals. This is a diva tactic, a bask-in-the-spotlight commonplace of Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion. But Turner's work-hard soul and her "Steel Claw" rock-and-roll stomp never sound contrived or posed. The spotlight may be given her, but she has to work in it, has to make her music and not just wear it.

The music of present-day pop songs -- which have their origin in video gesture, runway fashion, and other forms of mimesis -- envelops and folds itself atop the singer, imposes intricate quizzicalities on her, keeps her guessing and messing. The singer does not make her music so much as dwell in it. The song becomes mere decoration. Turner, however, forges her songs, rivets them, gives them their shape. When she shouts "Some say there's a price on love, watch your freedom go" as she stomps the bluesy mouth-harp pedals of "Twenty Four Seven," she takes music so basic that it barely has any mass at all and gives it thickness and temperature, shoulder and gut. When she "walks around in circles like I just don't care" in "Without You" and when she stifles and then bursts her passions in the torrid power ballads "All the Woman" and "Go Ahead," her fluid and big-boned contralto doesn't just perform the song, it makes the song, makes it solid.

This is the voice that invented the cat in heat, that climbed the walls of pride, that cracked granite and made a believer out of Mick Jagger, the basest of skeptics. She may be 60, but the strength goes on, the steel claw, the rock-and-roll mouth, the woman with a city's worth of pussyheat to burn for. Turner is not fun. Turner has had to make her own life every step of the way. She told Vanity Fair recently that the quality she values most in a man is independence -- and in a woman, too. Independence is not fun. It is hard. It must be made, every step of the way. Similarly, Twenty Four Seven is not a game. These 11 songs, intimate in their quietudes as well as their noise, are tough and serious enough to bruise you, put a dent in your gut, and make a lasting impression. For Turner, being 60 is just one more step that has to be anviled into song shape every inch of the way.

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