BETTE MIDLER’s up-and-down recording career has always been about juggling personas to create a portrait of an entertainer (and woman) of many (often contradictory) parts. And ”Bathhouse Betty,” her first album for Warner Brothers after more than two decades on Atlantic, is arguably her most multifaceted collection since her 1972 debut recording, ”The Divine Miss M.”
Many of Ms. Midler’s continuing characters are here: the blowzy aspiring art singer (”Song of Bernadette”), the post-disco diva (”I’m Beautiful”), the wistfully sentimental Everywoman (”That’s How Love Moves”), the Hawaiian hula girl (”Ukulele Lady”), the jazz nostalgist (”I’m Hip”), the original rock-and-roll mama (”One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”) and the brash, defiant smut queen (”Big Socks”). Several of those characters could be bunched under the umbrella of the Divine Miss M, Ms. Midler’s campy stage persona who has always suggested a funny, precociously talented little girl playing subversive games of dress-up.
Now that Ms. Midler is over 50, the edges of that incorrigible cutup have softened. Nowhere on the album do you have a sense of Ms. Midler breaking loose and recklessly kicking over the traces.
But the three key pieces of this entertaining jigsaw puzzle of an album are ballads of varying stripe that Ms. Midler delivers with the blunt open-hearted power that has increased over the years as her singing has gained in technical finesse. Brock Walsh and Adam Cohen’s ”Lullaby in Blue” is a woman’s wistful reverie about a teen-age pregnancy and a daughter given up for adoption. ”My One True Friend,” the end title song from the movie ”One True Thing,” is a written-by-committee ballad (David Foster, Carole King and Carole Bayer Sager) that aspires to be a 1998 hybrid of ”You’ve Got a Friend” and ”Wind Beneath My Wings.” Ms. Midler’s singing cuts right through its glossy Hollywood sentiments to find a poignant core of feeling.
Best of all is Mark Waldrop and Dick Gallagher’s ”Laughing Matters,” from the off-Broadway musical ”When Pigs Fly.” A dreamy throw-up-your-hands ballad about the decline and fall of almost everything, the song suggests a contemporary equivalent of a Noel Coward reflection and finds an effortless blend of the wistful and the comic. It closes the album on exactly the right philosophical note.