Why does Celine Dion get so little respect? Maybe it's because she doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint: She powers up banalities about love until they achieve a near-cosmic level. She's sold 150 million albums worldwide, which automatically makes her suspect. As if that weren't enough, she's also the kind of freakishly devoted wife and mother not seen since June Cleaver. Now, with the release of One Heart, the launch of a three-year, 600-show run at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace, and three songs -- including ''I Drove All Night'' and ''Have You Ever Been in Love'' -- getting continuous play in Chrysler ads, there are more opportunities to bash her than ever.
But the truth is that the French-Canadian star is far from being the epitome of everything that's wrong with music. Hipper artists have sold their tunes to ad campaigns, and Vegas was good enough for Sinatra. As for ''One Heart,'' it is a surprisingly appealing mainstream effort; it's what a neuroses-free Barbra Streisand would sound like if she were midcareer now instead of in 1980. From lite R&B (''Love Is All We Need'') to Cher-like anthems(''Reveal'') to the inevitable power ballads (''In His Touch,'' ''Stand by Your Side''), Dion hits all the bases without sounding schizophrenic. Indeed, despite its veritable battalion of writers and producers -- from Cathy Dennis, who struck platinum with Kylie Minogue's ''Can't Get You Out of My Head,'' to Sweden's Max ''Oops!...I Did It Again'' Martin -- it feels seamless. ''One Heart'''s best qualities are encapsulated on ''Faith,'' a Martin track that matches a hooky chorus with pneumatic arrangements that cushion the star without overwhelming her. Ultimately, this record is about the singing, not the production or the writing.
Which is exactly what riles Dion's detractors most. Critics cite the diva's mannered, too-much-is-never-enough delivery. But Dion -- who likes to stretch a note for a minute when three seconds would do -- is only showing off her skills. ''Saturday Night Live'' doesn't parody L.A. Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal for rattling the backboard every chance he gets, so why the double standard?
Dion keeps the belting in check throughout most of ''One Heart,'' so when she does go for the dunk, as on ''Have You Ever Been in Love,'' the sense of gleeful release is particularly satisfying. (The track -- a sweeping, string-laden '70s-style ballad cowritten by Daryl Hall -- is a repeat from last year's ''A New Day Has Come.'') The song is the best example of the rock-solid foundation ''One Heart'' is built on: Dion's uncanny ability to infuse sincerity into aural Hallmark cards and sound like the only person on earth who believes in true love. And in our age of postmodern ironists, isn't it refreshing to encounter someone who so genuinely loves her job?