Can it really be nearly six years since Cyndi Lauper erupted with her debut album, “She’s So Unusual”? That album presented an artist with unlimited promise. She was a virtuosic singer with a vivid, irrepressible personality. A songwriter of no small merit (she co-authored the soon-to-be-standard “Time After Time”), Lauper was also a shrewd judge of which songs by others would fit her beguiling style. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and Cyndi did.
The follow-up, “True Colors,” was a more sober work, yet Lauper was still able to put an eccentric spin on such oldies as “Iko Iko” and “What’s Going On.” The title song, by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, was a metaphor for relationships that Lauper could identify with, and she sang it passionately.
There’s no such passion on “A Night to Remember,” Lauper’s third and most disappointing album. It seems to be a work of premature panic. Lauper’s acting debut last year in the movie “Vibes” with Jeff Goldblum was a fiasco, but Lauper should have been able to slough it off the way Madonna simply ignored cinematic bummers like “Shanghai Surprise.” Lauper’s single “There’s a Hole in My Heart (All the Way To China)” was also a flop, and therein lies the biggest mistake of her career: taking that setback personally.
Instead of forging ahead and reasserting herself with confidence and vision, Lauper has attempted to buy success on “A Night to Remember.” Many artists, including Heart and Pat Benatar as well as the Lauper of “True Colors,” have gone to Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly for sugarcoated, format-adaptable pop-rock hits. But their self-consciously commercial songs should be kept behind a pane of glass with the warning: “Break only in case of emergency.”
Lauper must have felt the house was burning down, because there are six Steinberg-Kelly songs here. One of them, “Like A Cat,” (written with Christina Amphlett of the Divynyls), amusingly suits Lauper’s quirky personality. The rest range from formulaic to banal. “I Drove All Night” would be a perfectly pleasant Sheena Easton tune; Lauper sings it with so little urgency that you get the feeling she saw the lyrics for the first time when the session began.
She doesn’t fare much better on “My First Night Without You,” on which she shares writing credit with Steinberg and Kelly. Lauper relies too heavily on her flawless technique in an attempt to compensate for the fact that she doesn’t believe a word she’s singing. “Unconditional Love” is one of Steinberg and Kelly’s better formula songs – it certainly has an agreeable enough hook – but the lyrics ring false. “When I see you I surrender . . . ” she sings, but that’s exactly wrong: Unconditional love shouldn’t require surrender.
“Heading West” has promise, but Lauper again sounds alienated from the lyrics – you doubt that she’s experienced the emotions about which she’s singing. “Primitive” is a “Billie Jean” knockoff that’s anything but primitive: It’s too elaborately conceived to be of interest.
To satisfy this desperate, and really unnecessary, craving for a hit, Lauper collaborates with other big-name writers. “Insecurious” (I’ll say!), by Lauper, Desmond Child and Diane Warren, is as cute as the wordplay in the title. But Warren’s “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend” is boring schlock that Lauper sings with so little enthusiasm you wonder what she was threatened with. “Dancing With a Stranger,” one of two collaborations that include Frankie Previte (he wrote some “Dirty Dancing” hits) is an awkward mix of inappropriate styles: late 1970s disco with half-hearted heavy metal.
The feisty, flamboyant Cyndi Lauper we used to know is all but inaudible in these contrived settings. Before the songs start and after they’re over, we hear a few faint snatches of Lauper singing what sounds like an Appalachian folk tune which she’s titled “Kindred Spirit.” What the voice seems to be saying is: `Help! I’m being held prisoner in someone else’s vision of what my career should be!” The message of “A Night To Remember” is: Free Cyndi Lauper.