Wherever you stand on the artist herself, her music in the past or that which has now just been released, I doubt it can be denied that this is the biggest comeback of the year within the field of popular music. I refer to Whitney Houston and her new album ‘I Look To You’. Though it is perhaps best said, as famously uttered by Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, this is less of a comeback “it’s a return”. Something Ms.Houston references, with LL Cool touch, in the last soldier girl track ‘Salute’ – “Don’t call this a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
Before I go any further, let me establish a couple of points. Firstly, I’m not intending to pick into her tumultuous private life these past few years; I think we are all pretty much aware of that and I shall leave it to others to keep delving into, if they so wish. Secondly, I’m not going to defend her stance in the industry, or her role as a performer; you like her or you don’t and that is, as with all music and art, a solely personal matter of individual taste. Not everyone who admires Rembrandt likes Van Gogh, and may well despise Picasso.
I, for one, though by no means alone, was excited about this ‘return’, and I will happily say it has ticked the boxes for me. I like a defiant survivor, and I would say that the fact she has even come to make another album at all is nothing short of a true victory, and I applaud her on this alone.
The arrival of this long-awaited album kicks off with the first official single, the Alicia Keyes/Swizz Beatz ‘Million Dollar Bill’. Opening up with a great sample from the fantastic Loleatta Holloway’s ‘We’re Getting Stronger’ from the Salsoul stable gives it an excellent pedigree, and with an old-school R&B feel immediately lifts the mood, whilst clearly showing with her distinctive timing and phrasing that yes, this Dame can still cut it.
What of that almost-legendary voice? Has it changed? Yes, it undeniably has, but I don’t think anyone could have really expected it not to have done; to refer to her crystal purity and vocal acrobatics of of the early years is pointless. So now we have a delivery decidedly more husky, but as a fan of those smoky jazz divas of yesteryear such as Julie London, I find this no bad thing. Indeed, I feel it lends this new material an extra weight, especially with knowledge of where she has been. This is the voice of a woman who has lived, has been through the mill, and is now standing tall again, confidence assured.
Yes, there are plenty of naysayers out there, and that is fine, but what must always be remembered is that music is there to touch us. It can be the march of the drum, a funky bass-line, an accomplished riff, a beautiful melody; and it can be the power of the word. As I have said before, music to me, as well as my groove-filled orchestration to fun, is my solace and my prayer. It can move me to tears, inspire me to look higher and push on in life just that little bit stronger. Both the title track ‘I Look To You’ by R Kelly and the Diane Warren penned ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’ serve to do that, and alone make this CD what I hoped it would be – a triumph over adversity. That is classic Whitney. The lyrics within this album do, of course resound with relevance to her journey these past few years, but they also speak, as any song can, to our own selves too.
Is this album my hit of the year? My musical taste is too varied for any to manage that singular position I feel. I’m not her number one fan, but a fan I am, because this diva has always provided a role in life in what I jokingly call ‘Whitney Moments’, accompanying specific times – namely the fresh bruise of a breaking-heart, or that much needed pushing through to the other side. Call me a foolish optimist, but I believe we must always do our best to look for joy and inspiration in our oft-troubled lives, and whatever gives each of us faith must be grabbed and cherished at every opportunity. To look back to the start of the year, and a monumental election, I paraphrase one man and ask what is wrong in holding within each of us “the audacity of hope”?
Whitney Houston, like other soulful vocalists giving us their latest this year; such as India Arie, Terry Dexter, Mica Paris and Laura Izibor (a brilliant debut), is singing that tune, and that, I believe, is no bad thing, be it generic or otherwise. For me, this is a most welcome return.
I shall leave it to the lady herself for the final word. In a recent interview, she paid an emotional tribute to Clive Davis, the mentor who first put her on the global map, and who persuaded her that this was her next best step. “Those years when we were apart, I was lost,” Houston said. “But now I’m home, where I belong.”
(first published September 2009)