opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
Everything about this album’s title is ridiculous, including the fact that it has so many parts to it that the phrase “everything about” is actually warranted. Where does it slide into absurdity? The first period or the ellipsis? The statement of the obvious? Mimi’s definitely done herself in before she misguidedly calls herself “elusive” (?) or a “chanteuse” (??). There on the cover of the album, framing a thoroughly airbrushed Mariah Carey against a CGI sunset, her scanty garment seashell-like enough to suggest a potential (Gaga-aping?) nod to Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus, a title like Me. I Am Mariah (…The Elusive Chanteuse is elusively absent from the front cover) is a dangerous way to measure consumer interest. If it generates a lot of questions, it does so at the price of respect. Good thing Carey’s career has been so long and fruitful, with the record for more #1 hits than any other female pop vocalist, since it will guarantee her some sales – only from the devotees, I imagine, drawn by the singer’s name on the cover, since snarky irony alone does not usually drive the rest of us to part with $17. Involuntary as it may be, as with books it is difficult not to judge albums by their covers, and this one is spared the death penalty by dint of its gloriously campy entertainment value alone.
That’s just the problem though – Mariah Carey’s given us a hilarious album title worthy of immortality, but how many would-be listeners will ever dig deeper and actually, you know, hear the album? If calling her album Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse betrays either insanely misguided hubris and/or the total absence of critical self-awareness (no way to know which) on the part of Mariah and at least some of the folks responsible for bringing this album to the public, it also runs the great risk of being the whole story here or, worse, leading to negative preconceptions about the sound of the album. Turns out it’s a misnomer: the music not especially ridiculous, and it’s not terrible or even so-terrible-it’s-great. The title’s the most extreme and most interesting thing about Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, a record that’s decent without ever once being interesting, and which feels not funny but instead a little pathetic.
This is Mariah Carey’s first non-holiday collection since 2009’s Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel. At that point, the nature of pop stardom was already undergoing massive growing pains at breakneck pace. The highly marketable Cult of Weird was blowing up in music videos as a response to Youtube culture and viral sharing habits, while the R&B and hip-hop sounds that had dominated ‘00s radio were starting to be phased out by EDM and co-opted by “indie” artists. We were praising Drake and Kanye for their droopy, exhibitionist sad-sack acts as much as for the braggadocio that felt practically old-fashioned by comparison.The last time Carey released an LP was the last time her particular sound – tasteful, emotional but not histrionic – was viable in a market determined to rebrand it as conservative and vanilla. Since then, the notion of pop star as cultural monolith has only escalated, putting more pressure than ever on spectacle and stunt. Hence Beyoncé’s surprise release, hence the Yeezus tour, hence Lorde looking straight into the camera and refusing to lip-sync in the “Tennis Court” video, hence everything Miley Cyrus has done since “We Can’t Stop.” Lady Gaga got this ball rolling and by last year’s Artpop she was already being crushed by it. Pop right now is an arms race of conceptual daring and sonic anticipation. We want our stars to be on the cutting edge of, well, everything. If Taylor Swift seems deviant, it’s because she’s made her nearly anti-pop stance into a conceptual position itself. This is a landscape so different, in such significant ways, from the dominant model during the highest points of Mariah Carey’s career so as to be unrecognizable.
Carey’s enormous, masterfully controlled, and wonderfully comfortable voice remains incredible and indelible. In 2013, Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk both returned with albums that did a very good job of demonstrating how, as artists whose past work constituted crucial stepping stones on the path to today’s pop music, they could be defiantly retro in their aesthetics and still sound hyper-contemporary. Carey is no less woven into the very fabric of pop right now, though her influence is more subtle since she has no start-to-finish classic LP to point to as her masterwork. Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, has spoken frequently, openly, and passionately about Carey’s effect on her artistic development, and it’s easy to hear how Carey’s sweeping melodic range and smooth expressiveness shape lovely, drifting Grimes songs like “Rosa” or “Know The Way.” But if Grimes is representative of the places pop can, will, and already has taken Carey’s sound, where does Carey herself fit in? Short answer: she doesn’t. Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse isn’t a Random Access Memories-style act of rebellion against the Thing Mimi Hath Wrought, and it’s not a Beyoncé-style demonstration that a longtime chart-pop success can still play with the cool kids in the underground scenes. Me tries to cut it both ways by sounding more or less exactly like every Mariah Carey album does; it barely acknowledges that anything’s changed in pop at all since 2009, and when it does, its attempts are deeply awkward, like a parent nervously trying out slang with her teenager and getting it wrong.
Take “Thirsty,” “Faded,” and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” which share staccato keyboards and submerged drum tracks that give them the air of something from Cassie’s RockaByeBaby mixtape or one of the harsher tracks from Ciara’s recent self-titled album. But both of those singers flip between muscular chest-voice and evanescent vocal gymnastics in near-schizophrenic ways that make them suited to tricky negative-space-filled contraptions like these. Carey, on the other hand, sounds incongruous, lost, unable to adapt to these (very current-sounding) trappings; the only time “Thirsty” works is when honeyed harmonies come rushing in on the chorus and change the song’s effect entirely, though even then Carey still bumps uncomfortably against the snappy beat and underlying darkness. Or listen to “Supernatural,” which tries for the ode-to-motherhood power of Beyoncé’s “Blue” but isn’t interesting or catchy; plus, no one’s jonesing for samples of Carey’s kid babbling the way they are for any and all evidence of Blue Ivy’s existence. There’s also “Meteorite,” which kicks off with a filtered recording of Carey quoting Andy Warhol, a seriously fish-out-of-water attempt at Gaga-emulation that just makes no sense aesthetically or contextually. If we step back and take a look at this album’s metadata, there’s a song title that’s hashtagged (LOL) and, yes, the title, which, when you look at its phrasing and grammar, is not so out-there after all: it merely apes Beyoncé’s 2008 double-LP I Am…Sasha Fierce, a title that felt a little gutsier back then but, in this age of stylish minimalism, has an especially cumbersome ring to it. Carey feels almost a half-decade behind in almost every respect, and American pop culture has never evolved faster than it did in that half-decade.
Sasha Fierce at least backed up its silly title with a fully-formed (if inherently weak) concept, and killer songs to boot. Me’s refusal to fully bend to the demands of the zeitgeist sounds simply foolish without any exceptional music. Not everything on this album sounds as forced as “Thirsty,” but none of it is especially remarkable and a lot of it is hopelessly dated. Like I said, ignore the title; Me isn’t a truly bad album. It’s just that it’s almost emphatically not very good. Mostly, the songs split into plodding balladry and warm, lush, very lightly Latin-tinged upbeat numbers. The latter are uniformly superior to the former simply because they’re more entertaining. Miguel duet “#Beautiful” still steals the show, mostly on the strength of an f-bomb-dropping chorus it shouldn’t have taken this long for someone to write, but everything else simply floats by, slipping out of the memory as soon as the next song begins no matter whether it’s targeting your hips or your heartstrings. Big, moving slow jams, like the concluding one-two “One More Try” and “Heavenly” for example, have the scope and the vocal firepower they need to succeed, but ultimately all the do is drive home the saddening truth that lingers over Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse: pop songwriters today are finding new and more interesting ways to achieve the effects of the old-school models to which Carey so devoutly adheres. To sell that adherence, she needs great material and she needs star power. But this album doesn’t have great songs, and the only thing that’s changed shape more than an R&B hit in recent years is the definition of star power. Given the value of Carey’s contributions to pop over the last 20 years, it’s worrisome to think that the genre might be willing to leave her behind, but she doesn’t seem to be running to catch up. C-