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The Novel That Cried Out for Song

August 01, 1993|Patrick Goldstein

Is pop idol Michael Bolton getting a little nervous?

First Robert James Waller ruled the bestseller list with his literary tear-jerker, "The Bridges of Madison County." Then Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment announced it was making a "Bridges" movie later this year.

And now the celebrated economics-professor-turned-author is invading Bolton's home turf, making his music debut this week with an Atlantic Records album full of dreamy soft-focus romances.

It's called "The Ballads of Madison County."

A sometime folk musician, Waller has a pleasantly forgettable voice and a fondness for Jimmy Buffet knock-off lyrics ("she was a dancer with dreams of her own, he was a dreamer who danced all alone"). But his taste in cover material is pretty bland, ranging from harmless Opryland fluff ("Wabash Cannonball") to Johnny Mercer ballads, including "Autumn Leaves," which producer Arif Mardin dresses up with the requisite smoky saxophone and cocktail piano figures.

Waller also contributes four original compositions to the mix. Heavy on romantic nostalgia, they're WalMart-style honky-tonk valentines, full of cornball heartache--though no more cornball than anything Bon Jovi or Billy Ray Cyrus has been singing lately.

It's only when he tackles a more ambitious folk heirloom, like Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," that Waller sounds out of his depth, struggling with the melody like an awe-struck minor-leaguer swinging wildly at a 95 m.p.h. Nolan Ryan fastball. Waller also, inexplicably, attempts to put William Butler Yeats to music, lugubriously reciting "The Song of Wandering Aengus" in the manner of William Shatner breathlessly intoning "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

We have a feeling Waller's die-hard fans will forgive him for shamelessly tugging on their emotions, since that's his literary specialty. Our only disappointment was that Waller couldn't find a way to put to music our favorite line from his book. In the midst of their intense affair, one of his lovers proclaims: "I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea."

. . . For all eternity? You are my destiny?

See, that's what separates Waller from a real pop composer. We're sure Michael Bolton could've made a great rhyme out of that.

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