Mariah hits a new note

sonic sensation

Mariah Carey’s perplexingly titled new album, ‘Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse’, begins with a meditation and ends with a sort of confession.

Cry opens the album, with Carey singing slowly, in stately fashion, over warm organ, and harmonising with herself — a gospel simulacrum. The album concludes with the title track, a minute-plus spoken bit in which she talks about her once-pure child heart, before it was ever broken, and the peaks and valleys that have made me who I am today. It’s remembrance, but also an intimacy shared with the listener. 

Of all the great soul singers of the modern era, Carey has always been the least explicitly tied to the black church. The hugeness of her voice has always been more of a weapon used in the service of love than a tool of ecstatic reverie. And yet its sheer scale — the power, the range — has constantly set her apart, forcing her to create her own categories of pop (her early, stately ballads were always atypically dry for pop hits) or to fit somewhat awkwardly into existing ones (her many phases of hip-hop crossover, making for many outstanding flirty midcareer hits).


Carey at heart

But at root, Carey has always been a secular devotional singer. And ‘Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse’, her first album of originals since 2009, may be the gospel album she’s always been capable of making, without spending much time worrying about faith. Opting for arrangements that either explicitly nod to religious music, or that take in other devotional pop forms, this album shows how a mature Carey, now 44, may move into the next phase of her career, while also showing how her old strategies are encumbrances.

Three songs — Make It Look Good, You Don’t Know What to Do, The Art of Letting Go — have string sections arranged by Larry Gold, a key figure behind the majestic quality of 1970s Philadelphia soul, as close to secular church music as pop has ever come.

And in places, Carey employs actual gospel strategies, like the slow build on Cry, which is in the vein of Carey’s early hits like Vision of Love, but without any of the romantic theatre. Camouflage is a proper worship song, right down to the fiery backing choir. On her cover of George Michael’s One More Try, there’s explicit church organ at the top, though she unexpectedly (and unwisely) keeps her vocals largely restrained, apart from a spell at the end. And the connection is made literal on Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now), with its snippets of the Rev James Cleveland sounding halfway like Lil Jon.

These are, by and large, this inconsistent album’s bright spots, though Carey also excels at the lite disco of Meteorite, and the decorous vintage soul of Make It Look Good suggests a future in which she spends an album steeped in one time period, the sort of strategy that R Kelly has used to such effective ends.

Medley album

Unsurprisingly, there are also a handful of hip-hop songs here, as if the idea of leaving youth-oriented pop behind altogether was too much for Carey to bear. The most successful of these is Thirsty, produced by Hit-Boy (along with Carey), that’s bouncy and complicated.

But these sorts of songs have always been tricky turf for Carey, who seemed to be slumming even as she was mastering the form. Rhythm-heavy songs forced her to rely on her voice’s flexibility, not size. She took it as a formal challenge and won.Strictly speaking, this album isn’t a return to form — the music here is too spotty in ideology and quality. But at its best, this is severely present music, songs that argue for Carey’s continued importance. And that matters, because lately, she’s been a queen without a kingdom.

In the span since her last proper album, she gave birth to twins, Monroe and Moroccan, who appear on the album on the song Supernatural. (In the liner notes, she acknowledges “the home staff and nannies, thanks for helping mommy to ‘keep it together’.”) And she descended to earth as an American Idol judge for one season, spent mostly fluttering her eyelashes and snarling at Nicki Minaj, who did not mistake collaboration for reverence.

When Carey is touched by the real world, she often goes off course, which makes the anchored quality of her best music all the more powerful.

Her most gospel-like previous hits — Anytime You Need a Friend and One Sweet Day among them — have ranked among her greatest pop moments, places where she slowed down and forced the genre to respect her pace. In echoing the reverence of classic gospel, Carey has been bolder than even the other great pop-soul triumphalist of the past 30 years, Whitney Houston, despite Houston’s familial ties to the church.

But Carey’s career can be boiled down to the war between those instincts and her breezier moves, the ones that have kept her relevant but also looking over her shoulder. The less timely she is, the more singular her music is. Imagine if she really believed.

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