Canines around the glob can breathe a sigh of relief. With Mariah Carey’s Music Box, they finally won’t need to cover their ears when Carey opens her mouth to sing; for what must be the first time in her instantaneous career, she keeps her breathy, octave-stretching shriek mostly in check. On ”Dreamlover,” the fluffed-up pillow that is the first of the album’s many potential hit singles, she loses herself in the song’s funk-lite groove and merely sings. Not until the very end does she unleash one of her patent-pending, windshield-demolishing wails.
As much as it reveals a new sense of maturity from such an overconfident performer, ”Dreamlover” also pinpoints Carey’s flaws. Sure, it’s catchy, but isn’t its melody just a tad familiar? (The chorus contains more than a hint of Wilson Phillips’ ”Hold On,” much as Carey’s ”Emotions” recalled the Emotions’ 1977 hit, ”Best of My Love.”) Sure, you can hum along with it, but lyrics like ”I need a lover to give me/The kind of love/That will last always” make Hallmark verses seem like Proust. So it goes with much of Music Box (out Aug. 31), the fourth record in as many years by pop’s most prolific and relentless diva.
On her first two albums — Mariah Carey (1990) and Emotions (1991) — Carey came off as little more than an overeager young pro, showboating from one genre (ersatz torch songs in ”Vision of Love”) to another (heavy club beats in ”Someday”) as a way of establishing herself as a multi-radio-format act. It can be argued into the next century whether or not it was fair that Carey paid virtually no dues in her career. Yet what was truly annoying was the sense of entitlement that pervaded her music, not to mention arrogance: Last year’s MTV Unplugged EP — essentially a premature hits album — was primarily an excuse to show that the sequestered and tour-resistant Carey could perform in front of a live (though hand-picked) audience. It was clearly friskier than its predecessors, but even on stage, Carey’s rendition of the Jackson 5’s spirit-lifting ”I’ll Be There” was so anemic that it needed a transfusion.
Music Box takes it for granted that Carey is a beloved multiplatinum star, and instead concentrates on skillful pop record making. In that regard, it may be her best album. Once again, she has recruited C+C Music Factory henchman Robert Clivilles and David Cole for some dance grooves, and there’s no denying the whooshing grind of ”Now That I Know.” When it’s time for the ballads, Carey lets her voice drip over them like syrup instead of overpowering them; she lets the melodies speak for themselves. Songs like the undeniably strong ”Anytime You Need a Friend” feature gospel-inflected choirs seemingly intended to demonstrate that Carey has soul — which she doesn’t — but they’re beautifully arranged, and they serve as a nice counterpoint to Carey’s own lapses into show-offy vocal gymnastics.
Arrangement touches like those compensate for the album’s equal number of misses — a faceless ballad that wastes the talents of R&B producer Babyface (”Never Forget You”), a by-the-numbers remake of Nilsson’s melodramatic 1972 hit ”Without You,” and a second C+C dance confection, ”I’ve Been Thinking About You,” that lifts part of its chorus from the Spinners’ magnificent ”Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.” There are also a few breakup songs that, not surprisingly, ring false in light of her recent marriage to Tommy Mottola, the president of her record company.
Yet all of Carey’s lyrics, blissful or not, come back to haunt her. Ever since the release of her first album, she has led a professional life seemingly in a vacuum — as in not touring, rarely doing interviews, and being treated by her handlers as if she were a pristine object before she even had her first hit. That life as a Bubble Girl (apologies to Seinfeld) has never been more accurately reflected than in Music Box’s absurdly generic lyrics. Carey must ahve had her share of personal setbacks, disappointments, and observations about the plebeians lurching through life outside her Manhattan apartment. But it’s impossible to tell from pillow talk like ”Don’t you know that you’re blowing my mind/What you do to me/I can’t describe” or ”’Cause all I’ve ever wanted is you/And you alone/And I love you so/More than you could ever know” — two typical examples of love songs that make Carey sound as if she hasn’t had an actual human experience in her entire life. In comparison, the saucy talk on Janet Jackson’s janet. — hell, even Whitney Houston’s ”I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” — are no-guff declarations of female energy, liberation, and independence.
With Music Box, Carey completes her transformation into a human mall — a hodgepodge of bits and pieces of various cultures blanded out within an artificial environment. Granted, shopping malls can be fun, but you — and your dog — may not want to spend that much time in a food court. C+