Make no mistake: "The Next Best Thing" is definitely a showcase for Madonna. Not only does she star in the film (along with Rupert Everett, who gets top billing), but she put the soundtrack album together.
But even though the disc features new songs by the singer/actress, it would be wrong to say that the soundtrack to "The Next Best Thing" (Maverick 47595) is the next best thing to a new Madonna album.
Anyone who was a fan of her last album, 1998's "Ray of Light," will find much to like about "The Next Best Thing." Most of the tracks work the same pop-techno turf Madonna's last few singles assayed, and a few of the singers heard here bear a more-than-passing aural resemblance to our Miss M.
Nonetheless, being like a version of a Madonna album doesn't make it the real thing.
Even "Who's That Girl," the 1987 album that was Madonna's last mixed-artist soundtrack effort, had more Material Girl material than this. Four of the nine songs on "Who's That Girl" were sung by the star herself; with "The Next Best Thing," it's just two out of 12.
And one of those songs is a cover, a remake of "American Pie."
Who knows why Madonna was drawn to the Don McLean oldie? In 1971, after the Beatles had broken up and many rock fans were feeling confused and disillusioned by the changes in pop music, McLean's lament for lost innocence (as epitomized by Buddy Holly, whose death is alluded to in the lyrics) had an obvious and immediate resonance.
Here in 2000, however, it's hard to say which seems more ludicrous -- that Madonna would lament lost innocence or that she ever had innocence to lose. Producer William Orbit finesses the issue a bit by wrapping Madonna's voice in the soft-focus gauze of whooshing synths and trippy electrobeats, but that sort of neo-psychedelia was more convincing on her "Austin Powers" single, "Beautiful Stranger."
Far more convincing is "Time Stood Still," a mournful, Latin-tinged ballad that somehow evokes both "Live to Tell" and "La Isla Bonita."
It may not be as obvious a single as "American Pie," but it's more satisfying listening.
Still, it would have been even better had Madonna cut a song as hauntingly alluring as Mandalay's "This Life." With its sinuous, deep-bass groove and atmospheric blend of strings, trumpet and guitars supporting the vocal, it suggests what might have happened had Madonna gone into the studio with Massive Attack. A truly scintillating performance.
A number of English-style club grooves are sprinkled through "The Next Best Thing," from the thumping, house-style punch of Groove Armada's "If Everybody Looked the Same" to Olive's ambient-tinged take on the 10cc oldie "I'm Not In Love."
Even Moby's moody, sample-packed "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" seems to boast a slight Continental accent, thanks to the richly textured keyboards and dub-inflected bass.
This being an American movie soundtrack, though, it includes the legally required teen pop track. (Surely you remember President Clinton signing the Teen Pop Act into law when the Backstreet Boys were in Washington last fall?) The idol du jour is Christina Aguilera, who sings "Don't Make Me Love You ('Til I'm Ready)" with such blithe enthusiasm that you almost don't notice that the song is about avoiding date rape.
And you thought today's young entertainers had no social consciousness!
'The Next Best Thing'
Music from the Motion Picture
Sun score: ***