When Celine Dion’s husband and one-time manager, Rene Angelil, passed away in 2016, the powerhouse Canadian vocalist, chart-topper, couture fashion icon, Las Vegas mainstay and soon-to-be biopic focus lost her mooring, the center of her gravity. He’d helped pick her songs, her arrangements and her clothes, and, for better or worse, became Dion’s everything. Save for that voice, that lyric soprano with three octaves and its mighty level of duration and shading. That was, and is, Dion’s alone.
What was predictable, and warranted, was the fact that Dion’s next album, “Courage,” would be dedicated to mourning and un-mooring, to loss, to the universal feelings all of us have when we lose someone/anyone dear. That’s Dion’s role in the music world: take an intimate moment, be it a lover’s kiss or a child’s cry, shout it out loud, and do it with enough drama and treacle that Andrew Lloyd Webber would get a nosebleed at the very thought. Dion’s best moments, be it “All by Myself” or “My Heart Will Go On,” are nothing if not a combination of moody mawkishness, grandstanding theater and syrupy bombast. Beyond the twilight’s last gleaming of ’80s hair metal bands gasping for success, it is Celine Dion who built and maintained the power ballad as her own weapon of mush destruction. She’s the Wernher von Braun of epic wonder and woe.
What wasn’t so predictable — well, c’mon, maybe a little — was that Dion would go for the trappings of nu-pop-hop, EDM and AutoTune frippery, big time, on an album that mourns the loss of her husband.
So, let’s start again.
With Dion’s comfort zone well established, the best thing that she and her production team (or, rather, teams, as word has it the vocalist had nearly 50 tracks from which to choose, not counting songs penned for her since 2016 from Diane Warren and Pink) could do was freshen her sound. That’s understandable. The currency of ’90s nostalgia is part of Dion’s resurgence, even if anything too retro would fall flat or seem desperate.
The most glorious, and authentic, moments on “Courage,” then, address bereavement, fear and finality in that pearl-clutching, gasping-for-air singing style that is Dion’s, and Dion’s alone. Co-written by Sam Smith and produced by Stargate, “For the Lover That I Lost” grabs loss by the collar, draws it close and shouts it down, gorgeously.
“Wrecking Ball” co-writer and producer Stephan Moccio’s anthemic title song, a teary ballad, is tenderly conversational as it turns suffering into solid matter to whom you can speak. Think Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” or Woody Allen’s “Death Knocks,” and you get the picture. The windswept “I Will Be Stronger” from Adele/Florence & the Machine author Eg White allows the widow Dion a chance to ruminate on her misfortune, deeply miss the man she adored, then move forward with faith and fortitude.
Things begin to turn weird — yet at least stay sonically stable and in Dion’s wheelhouse — with the Sia/David Guetta track, “Lying Down.” Dion’s voice cuts through the initially spare and then string-sawing epic,with an emotive quiver, before getting to an empowered yelp, as expected. Boom: she’s victorious against all odds. But the lyrics find Dion telling an odd tale for a record so pointedly about losing the man she loved: “You tried to push me down, you tried to keep me possessed / I gave you my heart, you took the key / But now I paid my debt, it’s time I left / And I don’t need someone who makes me feel so bad / And I’ve just enough left to help me pack my bags / Yes, I have found something I thought I lost / I found me, I found faith, I found trust.”
The same is true of “Lovers Never Die,” with its cracked, feelings-filled vocal emboldened by ready-to-belt-out breathiness. Even the title seems tearfully reminiscent. Then she sings “Why’d you say goodbye if lovers never die?”… “Where’s the romance in this? It’s obvious that you’re full of it.”
If that set of lyrics is a genuine display of raw anger over a lover’s death, it’s brilliant — a Kubler-Ross stages of grief look at finality. If it isn’t, man, this is a mess.
Speaking of messiness, things go off the rails for “Courage” around this point.
When she isn’t doing her usual gasp for oxygen vocal tricks, “Lovers Never Die” finds Dion tackling nu-R&B with hip-pop inflections worthy of an Ariana or, worse yet, a Halsey. Dion goes for the same tween-y voice on “Imperfections.” Is Celine trying to get right with a younger audience? Isn’t winding up as part of Lil Uzi Vert’s Instagram video feed enough?
If “The Chase” wasn’t turgid enough, with attempts at fresh-faced girl pop a la Taylor Swift, and the reggae-touched (?!) “Nobody’s Watching” altogether painful, the twee EDM of “Flying on My Own” will gut you. Make no mistake, we know that Dion is a darling of the Euro DJ set, and that many of her remixes are golden — that they borrow Dion’s most epic qualities as a song stylist and push them into house music heaven. Save the molly for later, though: “Flying on my Own,” an off-putting album starter to begin with, was written from a place of EDM, and therefore feels forced and rudderless. Unlike hearing Cher toy with the kitsch of electronic modernism until making it her mien, Dion simply sounds robotic and dull. Say what you want about Celine Dion, but dull was never one of those expressions.
One could argue that “Courage” is the sound of Celine Dion unbound and unwound, ready to experiment beyond her usual theatrical soundscapes, and play in the fields with her tween chart contemporaries. That’s fine. Get it out of your system now. At least half of the album is fantastic. But don’t let her make a habit out of this.