Tuesday, November 5, 2013

album review: 'loved me back to life' by celine dion

A lot of people really hate Celine Dion, and frankly, it's not hard to see why. Between the accent, the oversinging, the often underweight lyrics, the fact that she writes none of her own material, the incredible cheesiness of nearly everything she's ever done, and 'My Heart Will Go On' (from Titanic), she's given people plenty of reasons not to like her music. Hell, I remember a friend of mine from university who absolutely despised Celine Dion's voice, and I know she's not really alone there. And coupled with the fact that Celine is another entry in the list of 'silent majority' performers where the fanbase isn't quite as active in aggressively standing up for their favourite artist, the vitriol for Celine tends to outweigh the praise. And it's that same silent majority status that won her fame and fortune throughout the mid-90s that pisses off some people - it's music that's defiantly simple and lyrically uncomplicated aimed at a demographic that probably doesn't explore a lot of music (and doesn't want to) and thus by default I'm supposed to rake her albums over the coals...

But you know, I'm not going to do that. I don't think I'll ever call myself a Celine Dion fan - the oversinging, the underweight lyrics, the empty vocal gymnastics that are only really impressive in range and even that has limits, the limited demographic appeal, some terrible covers - but I'm sorry, I can't muster up the hate. For one, I think she has a beautiful voice that is capable of working across a wide emotional range, and while her music might be cheesy, the emotional undercurrent can resonate. There's such a thing as doing simple things right and to me, her closest analogue in another genre would be Andrew W.K. - sure, his music is dumb as hell and extremely basic in composition, but it nails the basics damn near perfectly. If anything, that's the key to Celine Dion's demographic appeal - she's never going to deliver an album with incredible complexity an nuance, but she gets the basics incredibly well. For me, her albums tend to make or break on the songwriting and performance - if Celine is given good songs like 'It's All Coming Back To Me', written by songwriting legend Jim Steinman, she'll kill it in the best possible way. But if the songwriting or the instrumentation is underweight and can't match up to her voice (she operates best with pure bombast, and the other big problem that tends to come up is that her instrumentation or songwriting rarely are strong enough to match it), the songs don't tend to work. It's a matter of balance, and it's a tough one to get with a performer like Celine Dion.

But I had to admit that I was a little intrigued when I heard she was leaving her Vegas act and recording a new album this year. Pop music has only gotten more bombastic with heavier percussion and energy, so maybe Celine might actually have a place in the modern pop scene if she modernizes well. So, I took a look at her new album Loved Me Back To Life - how did it turn out?

Eh... well, it exists. It's not particularly good, but there's enough good elements on it that redeems it from being bad. In comparison with the rest of Celine Dion's albums, it's far from her best, mostly because it very much does not play to her strengths as an artist. I honestly can't see this album roping in new fans - if anything, I think the shift in direction will probably alienate some of her existing fanbase. And really, it's a good thing Celine Dion is as strong of a performer as she is, otherwise this album could have been a serious blow to her career.

So let's start with the high points, and that list pretty much starts and ends with Celine Dion. She sounds decent on this album, mostly because she's a good singer and she has solid vocal delivery. I just wish she was given songs that played to that advantage or were willing to push her at all, because any hints of bombast are completely muted and played significantly more 'classy'. There aren't a lot of 'big emotions' brought to the forefront on this album, which means that we're stuck in the more subdued range that sure, Celine Dion can sing, but she doesn't stand out. At times she tries to add something of a husky, Amy Winehouse-esque styling to her voice, and frankly, she's not particularly great at it. That's mostly linked to an odd sexlessness to this album through Celine's delivery - and when you have guest stars like Ne-Yo and Stevie Wonder, you have to work pretty damn hard to sound sexless!

And this takes us straight to the production - at the best, it's mediocre, but at worst it's goddamn terrible across the board. It's the big reason why this album completely fails to land any sort of impact with me, and considering this is Celine Dion's eleventh album, you'd think they'd have this formula down perfect by now! Where to start... well, I think a good place would be in the vocal production, which seems specifically calibrated to lower Celine's volume and push her back in the mix whenever she starts to belt, which, sure, you need to do some of that with singers like Celine, but it shouldn't be this obvious where the modulation is. On top of that, the mic pickup bottoms out far more often than it should, which leads to Celine's voice sounding constrained even as it overpowers the microphone. And who was the imbecile who thought adding obviously synthetic-sounding backing singers (with the exception of the inevitable gospel choir in 'Thankful'), an abuse of echo, and goddamn Autotune was necessary for Celine Dion? Her voice is her big selling point, why would you think distracting from it was a good idea?

On top of that, the instrumentation is almost uniformly underwhelming. At best, it's piano or light acoustic guitar, which is inoffensive enough, but none of the songs have enough of a hook that I'll remember them a day or two later. No, the ones I'll remember are the distinctly synthetic modern pop songs where there might be some bombast, but there's also a huge problem - the synths that they chose do not fit well with Celine Dion's voice, at least on these particular songs. If Celine Dion was trying to go for a harder-edged song, they would make more sense, but in contrast with her fluttery and flighty delivery, they come across as too rough and yet somehow without the high energy bombast that modern pop can deliver. This is an issue of production mostly - if she was trying to escape the adult contemporary genre, why didn't her producers and songwriters find material that better fit her delivery - instead of coming off as reinvigorated, she comes off as bland and interchangeable with a whole selection of new pop singers. But as it is, there are too many 'exposed edges' in modern pop instrumentation, and it clashes badly with Celine's cleaner delivery.

And you know, this would all be significantly more tolerable if the lyrics were any good or the songs were remotely memorable... but nope, we get a whole slew of new tracks from Celine Dion that would at best comprise album filler. And while I know she doesn't write her songs, the sheer lack of hooks and driving, memorable melodies is really disconcerting, particularly considering none of the songs are particularly lyrically interesting in a good way. Take 'Incredible', her duet with Ne-Yo about some love for the ages that apparently deserves to go down in history - but the entire song is written in the past tense. They 'were' incredible - in the past, not now... so why should I care about a relationship in the past that might have been incredible but didn't last or isn't particularly incredible now? And believe it or not, 'Incredible' is one of the better songs on the album - the rest are tepidly written with metaphors that have been done to death and awkward concepts that don't have strong dramatic payoff. Take 'Somebody Loves Somebody', which deals with a bad relationship where Celine chastises the guy in question for not behaving as he should, acting in ways you shouldn't when 'somebody loves somebody'. But without use of intimate pronouns, I don't get a clear feel for the stakes and the song just doesn't feel personal. Indeed, that's part of my big issue with this album - it doesn't feel personal and it doesn't resonate with me, at least not in the ways older Celine Dion songs have. Sure, part of it is an issue with the production muting the impact, but the songwriting is haphazard and neither of the covers (Stevie Wonder's 'Overjoyed' and Janis Ian's 'At Seventeen') really connected. And as someone who fancies himself a romantic and who can tolerate Celine Dion, that's a problem.

In the end, I don't know who this album is for. With the attempts at modernization, Celine Dion clearly wants to sound fresh and invigorated, but I can't see her larger, older audience buying into it unless they're invested in a more modern sound (and most won't be). And she's not going to win fans with it because the songs aren't catchy enough, the instrumentation doesn't pop as well as it should, and Celine Dion doesn't really have a younger cult of personality. And while most people won't notice or care about the production problems with this album, it was a real blow to this album in my books. If you're a hardcore fan of Celine Dion, you'll probably find it appealing enough, but I'm sorry guys, it's a 5/10 for me and not much of a recommendation. 

And Celine... you might want to go back to Vegas. There, you'll never need to innovate with the times, because frankly, the current pop scene isn't a great fit for you.


  1. I'm a huge Celine fan who enjoyed the album but I think this is a really fair review. It's nice to read a critique from a nonfan who is knowledgeable about music who doesn't feel the need to resort to gratuitous vitriol to get their point across (which is pretty much the default when it comes to critics and Celine).

    To address a few of your points though: Celine fans are a lot more diverse than people think, especially outside of the US, and a lot of us make the very same criticisms towards her that you bring up specifically because we enjoy her and know she could be so much better (the fact that for the most part she doesn't write her own songs, isn't very involved in the production aspect, chooses such trite material, oversings, etc.)

    To address some of your points: I definitely agree about the iffy vocal production on this album. But according to the huge press junket Celine did, it was all intentional. Lately she's been on an Adele kick, and she intentionally tried to imitate Adele's raspy tone, with very contrived results. Even the fans who enjoyed the album don't like her attempt at being "gritty" because it's not natural. Also she talks about how they reduced most of the reverb on some of the tracks to bring the voice forward and make it crisper, as well as soften the power of her belts. She thinks this makes the sound more edgy and real, but like you said (and I agree), it doesn't do justice to her biggest selling point which is her instrument to begin with.

    I'd add as a caveat though that her French material is infinitely better than her English, that is if you can speak French and understand the complexity of the lyrics. Not all of it, of course, but specifically 2 of the albums she released in the 90's called "D'eux" and "S'il suffisait D'aimer" - both written by a singer-songwriter named Jean Jacques Goldman who is considered France's Bruce Springsteen. Not only is the material infinitely more interesting lyrically, but she even sings in a more nuanced and musically expressive way rather than just resorting to the bombast and sentimentality that she's known for in her English work.

    Personally, I did enjoy some of the so-called attempts at modern tracks, specifically in the first half of the album, but I do think it suffers from too many filler tracks in the latter half. I think the title track written by Sia is one of the most musically interesting English songs she's ever recorded.

  2. PS I should clarify I'm actually American (although I study French), I realized my previous comment made it sound like I was an international fan, I wrote it in a rush

  3. I deeply respect your review, despite the fact that I may no agree with certain parts of it. My concern -and the reason why I allow myself to write this post- regards one of the comments you have made that has nothing to do with her music or her singing: her accent. I do not think is fair it is fair to judge someone or to despise him/her because of his/her accent. Having or not having an accent in a language is a matter of being native-speaker or non-native-speaker. The woman does an effort to communicate in a language which is not hers (just as any other entertainer, politician or international person who was not born in an English-speaking country). That effort should be valued, and should not be a source of jugment or despise.