Whitney's been through some shit, but don't expect details on her much-hyped "comeback" album, I Look to You. The disc is peppered with references to pain, hopelessness and regret, but that's about as specific as it gets. I suppose that's what happens when you don't write your own confessional -- your hired hands are left to be as generic as possible so as not to step on their boss's toes or piss her off. (That's especially true when one said hand is Diane Warren, who seems to have never experienced an emotion beyond inspiration, and I'm not even sure that's an emotion in the first place.) The difference between a gossip monger and a pop songwriter has never seemed so slight: they both make up the stories, it's just the latter does it with blandness.
Far more revealing than any of the words that Whitney says on the album, are what she uses to say them with. That voice, that one-time awe-inspiring natural resource now sounds polluted and in perpetual need of a throat-clearing. Although it is abstract, it is a much more harrowing portrait of this woman's story. At some point between 2002 (she sounds infinitely better on the infinitely less remarkable Just Whitney) and now, the woman that we knew -- Whitney, The Voice -- broke. While it had already been deteriorating with age and Newports (and whatever else), the magnitude of this change is striking. It is evident in every grunt, in every croak, in every yelp that previously would have been a run. I defended her damaged pipes when I gushed about "Million Dollar Bill" last month, saying they sounded real and "lived in." I didn't realize that they'd overstay their welcome over the course of an entire album.
Whenever a veteran act attempts to fold into pop's current status quo, he or she is accused of trying too hard. Whitney's no exception -- it's just that here, all the trying isn't an outward expression of prolonged youth or hipness. No, it's located interally, as she just tries to crank out something passable from the larynx. Otherwise, she's surrounded by something rather amazing: a group of songs that manage to be age-appropriate without sounding stuffy. Even if it's just barely, she's carrying the highest ratio of catchy melodies since...The Bodyguard? Whitney? The dance tracks are chic and don't pound you over the head with their faddishness, and the mid-tempos like the Akon collaboration "Like I Never Left" exude a sweetness that helps offset the brutality of her voice. The schmaltz here isn't exactly my taste, but it's always been part of Whitney's repertoire and so the weepy, would-be inspiring ballads even sound appropriate.
Taken as a whole, I Look to You is something of an endurance test, but almost all of the songs work on an individual basis. I can't imagine an outfit more fitting for Whitney, who's maybe the definitive singles artist of her time. She's released just two full-length studio albums each decade she's been in the business (if you don't count 2003's Christmas album One Wish), and a lot of her chart domination via a string of soundtracks and one-offs. I'm not saying I Look to You sounds full of hits, but I also wouldn't be anything but delighted if anything here was allowed to truly stand outside its somewhat oppressive constraints.
At the same time, besides "Million Dollar Bill," and maybe the determined "Call You Tonight," there's nothing here that screams classic. It's mostly just solidly competent. That's more than most were probably expecting, but it doesn't quite translate into the event I Look to You is being marketed as. If Whitney released an album with material of this caliber every few years, it would be a different story. As is, it's sort of destined to underwhelm. Add in the disingenuousness of an album based on a story that isn't really told (Whitney's fall and resurrection), and you're left with a conceptual failure that works despite itself. Seriously, the only thing we really learn about Whitney here is that she's a huge fan of shout-outs (they pop up in the heavily synthesized "Nothin' But Love," again in "For the Lovers," which is for the lovers, in "Worth It," which is also for the lovers, and her remake of "A Song for You," which is for you, of course).
There's even a pointed lack of romance on the album -- it's either crumbling or on hold ("Call You Tonight") or too fantastical to be taken seriously ("Million Dollar Bill"). Her lips are moving, but mum's the word. It's funny because in the much passed-around video of her Central Park performance for Good Morning America, she apologizes for her extreme hoarseness by blaming it on her Oprah appearance, which taped the day before. It's as though she's saying, "See? You make me talk about shit and I can't do my job." If only her pipes were as strong as they used to be, everything would be so much easier to sweep under the rug.