A compilation of Marlene Dietrich songs from Columbia Legacy’s series of extraordinarily tasteful fuck music, Love Songs seems doomed at first listen. Is it even possible to get laid to the adenoidal vocal stylings of Marlene Dietrich? She might be wrapping her syllables around pampered n’ pink moonlight sonatas from the likes of Mercer and Lerner, but the swooping noises emanating from her languorous, malleable pipes seem to suggest she couldn’t care less what you’re doing with your hand under the sheets. But, to their credit, the folks at Columbia seem aware of the oddball, masochistic appeal of their indecent proposition and have commissioned what is possibly the loopiest set of liner notes in recent memory. To wit: “She was Medusa gazing upon the written notes, transforming them into chips of ice and granite. From her throat, songs of love and intimacy became terrifying ballads piped from the gates of hell.”
Dietrich’s legendary films with Josef von Sternberg were the single most rewarding director-actor collaborations in cinematic history (imagine all the dignity, sensuality, and vulnerability of Pam Grier gliding across the airport hangar in the opening shot of Jackie Brown stretched out over seven glorious feature-length films). Even still, there was an undercurrent of jealousy and psychosexual abuse in their relationship. Dietrich’s vocal caginess sounds, in the films, like the self-defense mechanism of an actress aware of being commodified, trying to set up a barricade against von Sternberg’s encroaching scenery. Stripped of the context of von Sternberg’s psychotic fallen-woman melodramae, the diffidence of “Falling In Love Again” becomes passive, a libido in hibernation.
If these are “the gates of hell,” heathens are sneaking out of Limbo and straight to pushing rocks in Purgatory on Dietrich’s timeclock, in all likelihood attracted by siren songs like the hot-cha trumpet-laden “Jonny” or the ode to molasses-paced seduction “A Guy What Takes His Time.” The one song on the album that captures the menace and polygender drag queen aura of Dietrich is the unspeakably drunk “Baubles, Bangles And Beads,” a nightmarish wet dream as experienced in a sensory deprivation tank (nightmarish in part because she seems to have finally discovered how to enunciate the “s-s-s-s-s” sound after three decades of Elmer Fudd lisping). As make-out music goes, Love Songs might only be fit for frantic masturbation, but as a tribute to a unique stylist, it’s essential.