wears the trousers magazine


whitney houston: i look to you (2009)
August 30, 2009, 10:05 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , ,

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Whitney Houston
I Look To You •
Arista / RCA

The name Whitney Houston conjures a whole multitude of disparate, and desperate, elements. One of the big ones, she made it as a singer, an actress, at one point a model, and an all-round money-making powerhouse. Her career defines the ’80s and, for most, she needs no introduction, her status being on the same scale as the dementedly huge voice she is so well known for. Some of what springs to mind, however, fits less comfortably alongside her once squeaky clean image, the Houston who once sang so innocently of wanting to dance with somebody, somebody who loved her. That someone turned out to be a certain Bobby Brown and, well, we know the rest. Rumours of drug addiction, financial ruin, and then finally, after 14 years, divorce followed by rehab.

Many reports over the last decade have focused on how ravaged and incapable Houston had become, her voice described as “raspy” and her behaviour unfocused and at times downright defiant. Her gaunt physical appearance did nothing to console her ever watchful public, who, with the airing of fly-on-the-wall show ‘Being Bobby Brown’ in 2004, got a shocking look into the lives of the troubled pair, revealing a somewhat depraved and unhappy world (“She was so constipated I had to stick my finger in and…you remember that honey?” – cringe). This was not the lifestyle expected of an international crossover superstar with fame almost on the same scale as Michael Jackson. Drawing parallels with Jackson’s equally troubled existence is easy; wealth and talent don’t fix everything. What is worth noting, however, is that Houston is not dead and, well, Michael Jackson is. We should definitely celebrate that she’s still around to tell the tale, but what is really left of her we ask?

I Look To You is Houston’s first release since 2002’s moderately well received Just Whitney and is most notably the post-Bobby, back-on-the-tracks album, as reflected in ads that boldly declare it ‘The Greatest Comeback’. This is not just an album, we’re told, this is an event, masterminded by Clive Davis, the man who first signed Houston in 1983 no less, and who reprises his mentorial role with full old-school force. In an effort to make I Look To You a momentous occasion, Davis arranged glitzy listening parties in New York and London where he gave a grand effusion to introduce his charge. Celebrities showed up by the dozen, nodding along to the slightly sickly tribute, offering support to a healthy-looking Houston, who appeared in good spirits. Coming across as likeable but slightly batty, her wild gesticulations and dramatic pauses made for a speech much larger than life. To achieve the blessed level of true diva-dom, one must be seen to triumph over adversity, and the oh-so-regal preciousness of Houston’s resurgence puts her in the caricatural company of Aretha Franklin and Miss Ross. This is no bad thing per se. What’s exasperating is that the music on I Look To You struggles to meet this exaggerated status. Where the arrangements should draw from and expand upon everything that made Houston great – the soaring ballads like ‘One Moment In Time’ or the upbeat gospel-tinged pop of ‘Step By Step’ – the results are far from memorable.

The R Kelly-penned title track fared moderately well as a pre-release buzz single in the US, despite the rather banal lyrics and the crushingly dated production perhaps provoking more questions than answers. What this canapé does resolve, however, is whether Houston has a voice left – she does indeed, and it’s a voice of considerable strength and passion. Perhaps not as clear as it once was, nevertheless an impressive performance. Sadly, the rest of the album only confirms what ‘I Look To You’ hints at – a depressing lack of originality and depth that sets in from the very first song. Part-written by Alicia Keys, official first single ‘Million Dollar Bill’ is a weak attempt at an anthem that offers such sage advice as “If he makes you feel like a million dollar bill, say it.” Buoyant it may be, but profound it isn’t. This is not the stuff of great comebacks, and it gets still worse. ‘Nothin’ But Love’ is just as deficient of any real substance. Hackneyed lyrics like “To all the haters…Ain’t got nothin’ but love for ya” are completely devoid of intelligence or the emotional maturity that Houston seems to think the album flows abundantly with. 

The cover of Leon Russell’s ‘A Song For You’ is just plain awful. Whoever thought that this rather beautiful song deserved a ballad-cum-disco treatment should be shot. The production of the disco parts of this track are so far behind the times it’s hard to feasibly imagine anyone dancing to it; perhaps those partaking in aerobics for the infirm. More to the point, the inclusion of this heinous track speaks volumes about Houston and Davis’s utter lack of grip on what is modern. In working with Davis, Houston has surrendered herself to the mercy of a 76 year old white man who essentially has little idea of what is nowadays considered sophisticated R&B or commercial pop. The law of averages dictates that sometimes they come close to getting it right, but they leave it right to the end to show that hand. ‘I Got You’ is the better of the two Akon-produced tracks here and manages to make something a little more interesting and grand sounding, and perhaps has the sort of production that the rest of the album could have done with. The album closes with ‘Salute’, another R Kelly number and easily the strongest track. An unrepentant send off for a lover who has done her wrong, sharp backing vocals right up front in the mix carry a strong hook over a huge synthesiser, though the line “You think you know everything / you think your shit don’t stink, well it do” is more than a little clunky, as are the Cubase handclaps.

Ultimately, I Look To You lacks the warmth of her last great comeback, 1998’s My Love Is Your Love, and the full-throttle gospel power we know she is, or was, capable of. At the listening parties, Houston came out with a rather telling insight into her recent comeback: “I was moving to a little island, getting me a little hut,” she quipped. “I was going to have a strawberry stand and sell me some fruit! But he [Clive Davis] said ‘No, you are making an album’.” The advice was no doubt less than fatherly as, after all, Houston renewed her contract with Arista in 2001 for what was then an unprecedented $100 million; given the disorder of her career over the last decade, the record company are now understandably wanting some bucks back. But what is really disappointing is not simply that the record is a blatant exercise in unit-shifting but that I Look To You is completely lacking in Whitney Houston the person. The label are desperate to convey otherwise, but the tragedy is that these songs could have been sung by any number of artists. They fail to match the drama or share any of the experience gained from the singer’s uniquely eventful life. So the question of what is left of Whitney Houston still remains. Just don’t look to this to find out.

Chris Catchpole
UK release date: 19/10/09; www.myspace.com/whitneyhouston

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[…] 07 Marina & The Diamonds – The Crown Jewels EP [Richard Steele 2/7] 08 Whitney Houston – I Look To You [Chris Catchpole 30/8] 09 Dolores O’Riordan – No Baggage [Matt Barton 10/8] 10 Ingrid […]

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