The Divine Miss M

Bette Midler

Atlantic, 1972

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


When I was a little boy, I would raid my parents’ record collections, take them to my little kid’s record player, and absorb the music (or, in the case of my dad’s collection, the comedy of Bill Cosby—it was a different time) while watching the labels spin. I remember fondly snagging my mom’s copies of Bette Midler’s first two albums, watching the Atlantic label rotate in a hypnotic fashion.

It’s much different, I have to admit, listening to The Divine Miss M, Midler’s 1972 debut effort, on CD… for one thing, the label moves too damn fast to be hypnotic. Looking back, it seems weird that a five-year-old kid would listen to an album like this incessantly. Some of it remains amazingly fresh, though, and is a powerful first statement from Midler.

Right from the opening track “Do You Want To Dance,” the listener knows they are in Midler’s world, and we’re going to follow her journey. This might mean that certain arrangements undergo some changes—some of which work (“Superstar”), some of which fall short of the mark (“Leader Of The Pack” almost seems akin to speed metal due to the increasing tempo shifts).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

When Midler plays the arrangements closer to the mark, the songs seem to gel much better. Yes, some pronoun changes occur on her cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” but this particular track remains, to my ears, the strongest effort on the disc. And, let’s not forget her famous cover of The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which nearly sounds like a perfect clone (and I don’t use that word as any kind of slight).

If there is an underlying weakness to The Divine Miss M, it sometimes feels like the ballads on this disc weigh down the rest of the disc. If they had limited them to “Do You Want To Dance” and “Superstar,” this would have been more than satisfactory. But “Am I Blue” just feels like it drags on indefinitely. It’s not that Midler can’t handle the material; it just seems like too much melancholia, too soon. (I am well aware that “Hello In There” is also technically a ballad, but it is so expertly handled that it nearly improves on Prine’s original take.)

Midler’s side-commentary humor during a few of the tracks also tends to distract from the overall performances—never mind that this would become a trademark of hers on her self-titled follow-up disc, particularly on “Twisted.”

In the end, it’s not just Midler’s vocal performance that assures success for The Divine Miss M; it’s her cast of backing musicians. The pedigree behind her is astounding, from Barry Manilow on piano to having backing vocals from the likes of Cissy Houston and Melissa Manchester, not to mention the bass work from Ron Carter and drums by Ray Lucas.

I can’t honestly say I’d make this album part of my regular rotation nowadays, only because my musical tastes have become so expansive. But there was a joy in listening to The Divine Miss M again for the first time in what had to be over 40 years, and it still holds up well as a testament to the vocal talent Midler had—and still has.

Rating: B

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