It’s been a long time since I’ve even been impressed by a Mariah Carey album. “The Emancipation of Mimi” was heralded as a return to form, but how many people these days want to listen to that album straight through as opposed to just playing “We Belong Together”? Last year’s “E=MC2”, was a shameless regurgitation of the previous album.
So here we are, about 18 months later, and Mariah’s released another CD, “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel”. First thing I noticed was “damn, what’s up with the nutty album titles?”. Second thing I noticed was “damn, those titties are like POW on the album cover!”. Third thing I noticed is that it was almost entirely written and produced by Mariah in association with production/writing team Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. These guys have had a pretty scattershot history with me-they’ve worked on songs that are undoubtable earworms, like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and J. Holiday’s “Bed”. They’ve also come up with a few steaming piles of sh*t, like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and two solo albums of nonsense from The-Dream himself. Was I prepared for a whole album of this?
So, here’s the verdict: “Memoirs” is not the complete trainwreck that I surmised it was going to be based on reviews and word of mouth from people I trusted. It could certainly be a lot better, although I think that has more to do with the production of the album than it does with the actual songs.
One thing I can’t get over is the fact that the album sounds so damn STERILE. It would be nice to hear a live instrument now and then, but this album is totally synthetic and canned. Also, “Memoirs” never rises out of it’s midtempo slumber. It’s more or less the same keyboards, the same processed drum sounds at several slight variations on the same speed. That’s not what Mariah’s long-time audience is checing for. People who have been following M.C. since back in the day are looking for a little meat to their music.
Mariah’s a fairly witty songwriter. She’s definitely got a knack for the kiss-off, whether she’s sneering “see right through you like you’re bathin’ in Windex” on “Obsessed” or cracking that “if we were two Lego blocks/even the Harvard University class of 2010/couldn’t put us back together again” on “Up Out My Face”. Hell, what other singer can you think of who would rhyme “Serato” with “model”, “McDonald’s”, “gelato”, “Picasso”, “soprano” and “me llamo”. Although her lyrics can occasionally sound like entries from a 14-year old girl’s diary, she’s also more than capable of coming up with a smart lyric when she wants to.
In addition to the tempo of the music rarely rising above a crawl, Mariah’s voice sounds sleepier than ever. The belt that once pegged her as one of the most powerful singers around has all but disappeared, leaving her floating back and forth between a whispery coo that stopped being cute ten years ago and that inane dog-whistle voice, which she probably uses more here than on any album since her debut. She also uses her lower register more than usual here, especially on the song “H.A.T.E.U.”. On this track, the plodding tempo and Mariah’s emotionless vocal makes it sound like she’s been slipped about 500 sedatives and then pointed to the mic.
Not to say “Memoirs” doesn’t have it’s moments. “It’s a Wrap” is a fairly sassy slice of throwback soul, while “Angels Cry” is a ballad with a very pretty melody and the most “pop” vibe of the album’s original songs. Then there’s “The Impossible”, a slow jam on which Mariah gets down with her man, a vocoder and some Jodeci and proceeds to make a song which gives off the vibe of some of the best bedroom soul of the past ten or fifteen years while not even being half as raunchy. However, that doesn’t make up for the bland anonymity of most of the other material, or the hideous chopped-and-screwed vocal effect that plays throughout “Ribbon”. It says a lot when the album’s best written song is 25 years old (for the record, that would be “I Want to Know What Love Is”, Mariah’s latest attempt to reclaim a Lite-FM favorite).
I guess there’s a part of me that’s waiting for Mariah to get it right, to put all the pieces into place and make the album that I think she’s capable of making. She’s exhibited flashes of brilliance on damn near every album, but consistently surrounds that brilliance with tons upon tons of humdrum trend-hopping. Whitney Houston’s recent “I Look to You” proved that there can be successful compromises when it comes to mature female pop R&B singers that can still make commercially relevant music. Ms. Carey, I think it’s time to play catch-up.