OLIVIA Newton-John's records would sell well no matter what they sounded like, so long as her picture was on the cover. And her latest release, Olivia Newton-John's Greatest Hits, follows this marketing device to the letter. The casual album browser is treated to a fantastic picture of the beautiful Olivia, complete with her dreamy green eyes, red lips, blond hair, and goddess-like face.
And as if that wasn't enough, the back of the jacket features another close-up, albeit in black and white, which isn't nearly as impressive as the picture on front. But while in the store, the Olivia fan will only be able to speculate about the nature of the picture that will unfold when the record is opened.
The big surprise inside the album is a fold-out photo of Olivia on a couch, staring wistfully into the camera with those same green eyes that adorn the front cover. For any other artist it wouldn't be fair to dwell on the nature of the record cover, but Olivia is a special case. There are no credits for any of the musicians and singers who back up Olivia on the 12 selections. But that doesn't mean that no one else besides Olivia gets recognition. Au contraire. The four credits on the cover mention her make-up person, her hair stylist, her photographer and her art director, but with all that emphasis on the external aspects of Greatest Hits, the inside is bound to show signs of neglect.
Olivia brings us her unique, breathy rendition of every song on the album. This method is suitable for some tacks, but her seductive gasping seems out of place on most of the songs. Olivia's singing comes off as an attempt to arouse her prepubescent fans to a state of frenzy.
All of her songs lack musical energy, however. Olivia's voice complements the mediocrity of the instrumental rendition and often there is no point in trying to make a distinction, given the mundane quality of the music.
The ironic theme running through many of the songs on this album is an implausible one: that Olivia has been jilted by a lover. Why would anyone who looks like Olivia get dumped on repeatedly? It could be her deep love for animals. She lives in Malibu, California, with one cat, four dogs, and five horses, and she harbored thoughts about becoming a veterinarian before she became a star.
Olivia starts her album with her first hit, "If Not For You," a song her publicists claim rocketed her to instant international success in 1973. Immediately we are exposed to her breathy style and the tedium of the whole presentation. Like most of her versions of rock standards, "If Not For You" has no depth--there is no attempt to enliven the tune with good bass or percussion.
"Changes" follows; unfortunately, this is not David Bowie's classic song, but an Olivia original about divorce. Fortunately, it's the only song on the disc written by Olivia. Even though her P.R. hype refers to her intellectual background (her grandfather was Max Born, a Nobel Laureate in physics), the lyrics of "Changes" have an inane quality:
You said a million times we change,
Can't bring myself to say those words again,
A piper never changes tune,
You can't grow apples on the moon.
That's the mellow introduction to the song. Olivia sounds concerned about the welfare of her son after the separation, but she has some trouble expressing her feelings when she sings the penultimate verse:
Those weekly outings never work, you know,
Buying gifts and candy, picture shows,
They can't replace the man around
You voice, your touch, your manly sound.
Olivia's voice was made for the song. "I Honestly Love You," in which she uses her feminine appeal to the utmost. The listener is told countless times, "I love you, I love you, I honestly love you." But while the lyrics may not be of a high caliber, the song accomplishes its objective, assuming Olivia is trying to seduce her fans en masse.
In "Please Mr. Please," Olivia demonstrates her ability as a country singer. Although she won't make you forget Loretta Lynn, Olivia's version earned her the 1975 Country Music Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. "Please Mr. Please" explores the pain of a recent break-up, a pain that is exacerbated by hitting the B-17 combination on the juke box that plays the estranged couple's favorite song.
In "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)," another of the album's country selections, Olivia again tries to put the moves on her audience. The song starts off like any standard country tune, with the cliche of a twanging guitar, but instead of hearing some powerful down-home voice, we hear Olivia's sighing.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what Olivia Newton-John sings. She could probably make selections from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, popular country or rock songs. Her producers realize that the best way to guarantee top record sales is to put as much of Olivia's picture on the jacket as possible.
This blatant use of pure sexuality to sell records is not a welcome trend, since it could discourage some real talents who don't have Olivia's gasping voice or beautiful face. But if you don't have anything on your walls, buy this album, throw away the record and tastefully decorate your room with Olivia. She's much better than gray cinder blocks.