The Play’s the Thing


Celine Dion’s new album has three or so songs that I incessantly crave hearing, which is at least two more of hers than I’d previously had such a craving for. Not that I don’t enjoy some of the previous: For instance, I was thrilled by the energy with which “Love Can Move Mountains” broke from the box back in 1992. I have this memory of Celine spreading her arms in the video and the music exploding forth. And I like one of the craved ones here on A New Day Has Come for how it reminds me of her Taylor Dayne-ish mammalian disco stomp on 1990’s “Unison,” and another, “Ten Days,” for how it applies the Dayne-ish stomp to ’80s-style dance-oriented rock. (The latter has lyrics that are both effectively precise—”Ten days and I’m all alone,” not nine or 11—and mysterious: Ten days since what? Love lost? Acne? Car door slammed on finger?)

Still, I’ve always been puzzled by Celine’s stardom—though I like her music often enough, I’d never heard a distinct musical personality in it. Being a pop star isn’t just about hitting the high notes; it’s about making people feel they’re hearing you in those high notes, or so I assumed. My difficulty was that her most dramatic attribute—that she can sing high and loud—had almost no emotional payoff for me. For instance, “My Heart Will Go On” is a pretty song, but Celine’s mega-gazilla smash performance of it back on the Titanic soundtrack was just too predictable: breathy vocals on the first verse, a quaver when she sings, “I feel you,” the voice starting to swell in the second verse, then held-in emotion in the chorus, and her singing finally letting loose on the third verse, where she gets loud, and really, you know, loud, and so what? The problem wasn’t so much an excess of technique, but rote excess. (Also, ever since Titanic I kept picturing Celine as the prow of a ship.) There was a primal leviathan of something, but it failed to engulf me. I felt right to be unengulfable, but not right to be ignorant about the nature of the engulfment. Twenty-eight million people can be wrong, but they’re not all likely to allow themselves to be bored.

So I talked to my friend Keith, who admits to getting choked up by a number of Celine’s songs (“I just accept this about myself, and make sure no one ever sees”), and when I pressed him he told me: “Her voice carries that quality of empathy or comfort that is so needed, no matter who you are. I sing in church every Sunday morning. When I began this job, I remembered the times when I was sick as a little boy—my mother would sing hymns to me. And it occurred to me that this was what I should be giving to the congregation: a sense of comfort that is felt. I pray to let God set aside my personality and let the message come through. And I think that Ms. Cdlion kind of does this naturally, perhaps without knowing it.”

So Keith is suggesting that the quality that moves him here is something other than personality.

Either way, on the new album Celine is singing a lot smarter than she had before, using her voice to much better effect—she’ll hit you with volume, but not in tedious, drawn-out climaxes, and not always where you’d expect it. She does some of the breathy stuff too, but this time it seems fresh; on the title song she double-tracks a buffed and gleaming vocal line atop the breathiness, which makes a nice contrast.

It’s the same voice, the same vocal tricks, but with a new playfulness. She’s funning around with the dynamics, not just showing them off. In the midst of a ballad, she’ll seemingly interrupt herself, drop her voice deep, go rough and soulful, just for a second. Or she’ll sing across funk-fragmented rhythms. Or in the supposedly anguished “Ten Days,” she’ll break into irrelevant “dibba-dum dum di di-dums.” She’s living from moment to moment, not tying herself so much to standard procedures of expressive singing. She and the musicians seem to be getting a kick out of batting notes back and forth—an interesting achievement, given that a basic track would typically be put together in London or Stockholm or somewhere, Celine’s voice added in Montreal, and the result mixed in Miami or Los Angeles or back in Sweden.

Celine still does too many ballads that are mediocre no matter how well she plays around with them. And despite her vocal restlessness, her accompaniments lack musical range. A New Day opens with blips and boops from the electro-dance toolbox, which makes me wonder why, since she’s so willing to swirl her voice around, she doesn’t take her cue from the many thousand dance and hip-hop producers and allow beats to swirl around the voice in response. And the two cuts where she’s officially stretching her repertoire—a couple of jazz-pop standards from the 1940s—are the two dullest: She sings in a smoky jazz tone on the smoky jazz cut, uses blues embellishments on the bluesy one, but you wonder where she is. (And of course, noting the absence of her personality in these songs, I realize the presence of her personality in all the others, despite my having earlier told myself that such a personality does not exist.) She’s not helped any by the lyrics on this LP, provided by a slew of songwriters. Beyond praising the mystery of “Ten Days,” the best I can say is that, vague and stereotyped as the words are, they don’t register as much of anything, so they don’t get in the way. The sky is touched in one song, moonlight is touched in another, two songs have light in someone’s eyes, nine of the first 10 have sky or weather metaphors, rain can be cleansing but storms signify trouble, sun signifies rebirth, heaven signifies heaven, every child creates a skylight of beauty, etc. Actually, for some reason I’m moved—music can do this—when in the title song “I saw the light in the sky” transmutes into “I saw a light in your eye, in the eyes of the boy.” (Moved when I hear it, not when I read it.) Elsewhere, “All the universe is calling/Cry a single cello from your heart” gets points for bizarreness, and “weeds grow up through the pavement cracks” for unexpectedly joining rain, taxes, and love as an inevitability of life. And Harry Warren, in one of the 1940s lyrics, shows that at least you can put craft and wordplay into your clichés (“I found a dream that I could speak to. . . . I found a thrill to press my cheek to”), and thus he puts the modern-day hacks here to shame.

Still, what I get most from this album— what I had not anticipated—is the sense of the natural inventiveness of music: sound generating more sound, play generating more play.