An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective, Part Eleven: 1993-2000

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Part Eleven: 1993-2000

Olivia Newton-John was poised to return to touring for the first time in ten years when her breast cancer diagnosis changed everything.  After beating back the disease into remission, she took a fresh look at her life, both professionally and personally.  The latter examination led to the end of her first marriage, while the former changed the course of her musical career.

While undergoing treatment for breast cancer, the sleepless nights and worried thoughts nearly consumed her. She found an outlet for the pain and the stress through songwriting. While she’d been writing her own songs since the early days of her career, her albums to date had always been dominated by songs written by others.  From this point on, she’d be recording primarily her own songs instead.

No Matter What You Do

Written by Olivia Newton-John

1994

Australia #35

Grade: A

The world heard this new incarnation of Olivia Newton-John for the first time with “No Matter What You Do,” a song about relentless optimism in the face of overwhelming adversity.  The underlying twang previewed her upcoming return to country music, but this is a pop song, first and foremost.  What’s most refreshing about it is its point of view, which emphasizes the wisdom learned over the years as she refuses to take responsibility for the happiness of others if it means sacrificing her own.  “No matter what you feel I’ve done to you,” she sings, “know that my heart was true. If reaping what you sow is real I know I planted in truth.”

Gaia: One Woman’s Journey

1994

International:

Australia #7 | U.K. #33

Track Listing

Trust Yourself

No Matter What You Do

No Other Love

Pegasus

Why Me

Don’t Cut Me Down

Gaia

Do You Feel

I Never Knew Love

Silent Ruin

Not Gonna Give In to It

The Way of Love

Newton-John processes the feelings surrounding breast cancer battle and upcoming divorce on this intensely personal album, which draws parallels between her internal struggles and those of the world around her.  She wrote all twelve songs on the album by herself. While some themes she explores here are familiar ones, like the environmental songs “Don’t Cut Me Down” and “Silent Ruin,” she charts quite a bit of new territory here, too.

The tracks most obviously linked to the cancer diagnosis and treatment are among the best.  “Not Gonna Give In to It” has a Calypso beat and triumphant lyric, and has been a staple of her live shows for the past twenty years.  Even better is “Why Me,” which resists the temptation to wallow in self-pity, asking instead, “Why me? Why not me?”  Her father, who died from cancer on the same weekend she received the news of hers, is on the other end of the conversation, as she reassures him, “Daddy, know I know.”

It’s a strong album overall, with another highlight being “Trust Yourself,” which opens the album with the foreshadowing lyric, “I need to tell the truth. I can’t lie anymore.”  The album closes with “The Way of Love,” an appeal for world peace that embraces respecting the individuality and choices of others as the path forward.  Rather than coming off as hopelessly naive, which it might have been if she’d attempted writing it a decade earlier, it is instead the perspective of a mature woman who has come face to face with her own mortality and fully understands the pointlessness of fighting over differences during the short amount of time we have here on earth.

Gaia is as significant a turning point for Newton-John’s music as Grease was, and although the musical styles have varied in the years since, her songwriting has dominated every album since.

Don’t Cut Me Down

Written by Olivia Newton-John

1994

Did Not Chart

Grade: B

A song written from the perspective of a tree can only be so effective, at least if the environment isn’t a particularly big passion of yours.  But listen to “Don’t Cut Me Down” as also being the desperate plea of a bullied or abused child, and it’s considerably more powerful.

Had to Be

Written by John Farrar and Tim Rice

U.K. #22

Grade: C

Cliff Richard had this idea to make a musical called Heathcliff based on the novel, Wuthering Heights.  The pairing of John Farrar and Time Rice should’ve been a winner, but the musical album is plodding and obtuse.  Newton-John is barely present on this track which was presented as a duet, but she provides the only moments of it that crackle with any kind of energy.

Falling (with the Raybon Bros.)

Written by Lenny le Blanc and Eddie Struzick

1997

Did Not Chart

Grade: C

Shenandoah frontman Marty Raybon teamed up with his brother Tim and formed the Raybon Bros. in 1997, right after his split with the hit country band.  They got a gold single out of being the only commercially available way to buy “Butterfly Kisses” without purchasing the whole Bob Carlisle album.  Why Marty didn’t just fly solo is a mystery. “Falling” is really just a duet with Marty and Olivia, and a tepid, milquetoast one at that.  Again, Newton-John’s vocals are the only highlight of an otherwise forgettable song.

“Falling” was released on MCA Nashville, heralding Newton-John’s return to MCA after eight years away. She’d spent the years following Gaia in Nashville, collaborating with the town’s top songwriters.  The result was her best selling studio album in years, although the project was largely overshadowed by the 20th Anniversary of Grease, which became a box office hit all over again in 1998.

I Honestly Love You (with Babyface)

Written by Peter Allen and Jeff Barry

1998

United States:

Pop #67 | AC #18

International:

Australia #88

Grade: B-

MCA made some baffling choices when marketing Back With a Heart, most notably choosing an R&B-flavored remake of “I Honestly Love You” as her reintroduction to the country market. Babyface provides vocals much like he did on Madonna’s “Take a Bow,” but where that hit was as much a conversation with the lead vocalist as it was a supporting role, that’s not the case here. It’s just Babyface repeating some of the words after Newton-John does, without adding anything meaningful to the recording.  I’d call the whole thing unnecessary, but there’s a new layer of sadness in Newton-John’s performance that comes from a song like this being sung by a woman who is 25 years older this time around.

Back With a Heart/Precious Love

Written by Gary Burr and Olivia Newton-John/ Written by Olivia Newton-John and Annie Roboff

1998

Did Not Chart

Grade: B+/B

Various international markets received one or both of these songs as singles from Back With a Heart.  The title track is the stronger of the two, and the closest thing to country on the album. “Precious Love” sounds like something Annie Roboff would’ve written for Faith Hill to sing, and if she’d recorded it, it probably would’ve been a hit.  If Newton-John had stayed in Nashville beyond this project, she could’ve made some real money writing songs for a few years, until country radio stopped playing women.

Back With a Heart

1998

United States:

Pop #58 | Country #9

Canada:

Pop #14

Track Listing:

Precious Love

Closer to Me

Fight For Our Love

Spinning His Wheels

Under My Skin

Love is a Gift

I Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight

Don’t Say That

Attention

Back With a Heart

I Honestly Love You (with Babyface)

What’s Forever For (Japan Only)

Newton-John’s return to country has fewer trademarks of the genre’s sound than the crossover records that Nashville crucified her for in the seventies, but nary an eyebrow was raised this time around. That might be because radio didn’t touch it, so not many people heard the album beyond those who bought it.  The biggest problem with the album might be that it’s too ballad heavy, but more interesting production could’ve alleviated that issue.  Back With a Heart has too many producers, robbing the album of the distinctive sound that the material needs to reach its full potential.

The album’s best tracks are a pair co-written and co-produced by Gary Burr.  An entire album that sounded like these two tracks, which are dominated by acoustic guitar and unpolished vocals, would’ve showcased Newton-John’s skills as a singer and a writer more effectively. Still, the album sold better than any studio album of hers since Soul Kiss, and she won a Daytime Emmy for “Love is a Gift,” winning Outstanding Original Song for its use in As the World Turns.

To support the album, Newton-John embarked on her first tour in sixteen years.  Her stops in Atlantic City were recorded so the tour could be commemorated with a live album.

One Woman’s Live Journey

2000

Australia #41

Track Listing:

Xanadu

Magic

Don’t Stop Believin’

Please Mr. Please

Jolene

Let Me Be There

Sam

Have You Never Been Mellow

Precious Love

Not Gonna Give Into It

The Flower That Shattered the Stone

Back With a Heart

Suddenly

You’re the One That I Want

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Summer Nights

Don’t Cut Me Down

Over the Rainbow

If You Love Me (Let Me Know)

Physical

I Honestly Love You

Recorded in the earliest years of Newton-John’s return to live performing, One Woman’s Live Journey captures a legendary artist who is still figuring out how to present that legacy on stage. She gets some of it right on the money, with jazzy arrangements of “Xanadu” and “Magic” that have remained virtually unchanged over the past twenty years, and the inclusion of “Not Gonna Give Into It,” which has been a live highlight that never leaves her set.

What’s still missing is the proper pacing.  Country hits that would soon be properly relegated to a focused medley are still sung in full and scattered throughout the set list.  The Grease hits haven’t found their way to being the appropriate climax, and the non-movie pop hits that followed that film are almost completely ignored, represented only by “Physical,” which itself would be brilliantly reinvented as a samba ballad shortly after this album was recorded.

As it is, One Woman’s Live Journey showcases the breadth of Newton-John’s storied career, but it doesn’t come close to showcasing the riveting live performer she’d grow to be in the years that followed.

An Olivia Newton-John Retrospective

Next: Part Twelve: 2001-2009

Previous: Part Ten: 1987-1992

 

4 Comments

  1. Wow, there’s a lot here I wasn’t aware of. I was initially turned off my Gaia’s new agey-ness, but recently ive heard it again and surprised hiw good it is. Thanks for the in depth info!

  2. Thank you for this new chapter of ONJ’s retrospective! I’ve been reading them avidly, such a great job you’ve been doing.
    For this period, I think it’s worth mentioning the touring she did in Australia in 1998 with Cliff Richard, then as part of the main event tour which was very successful, along with the CD issued from the tour. This really started her back to performing again. She featured in the movie Sordid Lives in 2000, and recorded a few songs for the soundtrack, among them the title song. Speaking of movie, she also had a part in It’s My Party in 1996, by the Grease director Randal Kleiser, and her Gaia’s song, Don’t Cut Me Down, was used for the soundtrack.
    And of course, 2000 saw her perform at the Sydney Olympics, and her Dare To Dream duet featured in the Olympics CD.

  3. Such great articles, and very impressed by how factual they are as well as his knowledge of her work. Not just the hits but each one of her many Albums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.