Let's start with that subtitle: The Elusive Chanteuse? It's hard to take it seriously when the first two words in Mariah Carey's new album title are Me and I, and she's standing right there on the cover in a crocheted swimsuit like a vision of Aphrodite that somebody airbrushed on the side of a van. And although the singer hasn't released a proper studio full-length since 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, she's been everywhere: claiming she needed ''a fragrant moment'' with her perfume on HSN; telling 20/20 that she gave birth to her now 3-year-old twins while blasting her own song, ''Fantasy,'' in the delivery room; having a hold-my-hoops showdown with Nicki Minaj on American Idol. (Her time as a judge on Idol, she told Billboard, ''was not festive.'') So it's genuinely exciting that she opens her new album with ''Cry,'' an emotional Mariah-at-the-piano ballad that could make people start to care about the music again.
Working with longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri, Carey front-loads the track list with midtempo R&B and soulful torch songs that spotlight her best asset: That Voice. She comes on strong with Jennifer Holliday-in-Dreamgirls bravado on ''You Don't Know What to Do.'' (''You'd better SING IT, girl!'' yelps guest Wale appreciatively.) And she's whistle-toning all over the end of ''Dedicated,'' a fun, Wu-Tang-sampling tribute to hip-hop's golden age, featuring Nas.
Nostalgia is a big theme here, both lyrically (she's looking through old photo books on ''Faded'') and musically, with arrangements that borrow from Inner Life's disco rave-up ''I'm Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair)'' and the O'Jays' Philly-soul classic ''Let Me Make Love to You.'' Stevie Wonder even whips out a harmonica solo for ''Make It Look Good'' that could've been unearthed from the crates. There are still way too many slow, generic love songs and too much schmaltz, like the harp-strumming ''Supernatural'' (featuring the giggles and babblings of ''DemBabies, a.k.a. Ms. Monroe and Moroccan Scott Cannon, a.k.a. Roc N' Roe,'' according to the album credits). But it's easy to get nostalgic yourself during the gospel epic ''Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can't Give Up Now),'' backed by a full choir and samples of the late Rev. James Cleveland, with Mariah trilling like crazy. This might not be the ''Vision of Love'' Mariah, but she sounds more like that girl than she has in a while.
That Voice has been through a lot, and you can hear it. There are times on The Elusive Chanteuse when she's trying to power through a note where it sounds like digital technology might be holding her up by the straps of that crocheted swimsuit. But who else has survived EDM and Auto-Tune and still climbs her way up the octaves like this? Ariana Grande may have been christened the ''new Mariah,'' but we still need the old one. And she is telling you that she's not going. B