The funny thing about all those "new Whitney Houston" remarks that greeted Carey's hugely successful 1990 debut album is that some people meant it as a compliment and others used it as a dig.
The reasons for the positive comparisons: Carey, too, has a voice that is able to hurdle over and around notes with almost acrobatic ease, and the music itself was so in step with today's accessible mainstream that big sales--given the right promotional muscle--seemed inevitable.
Sure enough, the album is still in the Top 25 after more than a year on the charts, and has sold more than 5 million copies. The combination of raw talent and sales so impressed the record industry that Carey won a Grammy as the year's best new artist.
So why the knocks? Like Houston to this day, Carey's debut album showed more technique than personality.
In this follow-up--mostly featuring ballads done in an R&B/gospel style with strong pop overtones--Carey's voice, with its spectacular high register, is still impressive. The problem, even more than on the debut, is the songs and production.
Perhaps heeding the criticism last time that the songs were too lightweight, Carey, who writes her own lyrics and co-writes her music, has come up with a bunch of overly serious songs--many of them high indeed on the Angst -scale.
Most of the time, she's either playing the wounded lover ("And Don't You Remember," "Can't Let Go" and "You're So Cold") or she's groveling at some guy's feet ("So Blessed" and "Till the End of Time"). The lyrics are embarrassingly overripe, untempered by subtlety or irony, often sounding like bad--and in this age of sexual equality, unenlightened--high school poetry.
The biggest downer on this gloomy album (due in stores Tuesday) is the closing tune, "The Wind," which is about grieving following the death of a young loved one. Carey wrote lyrics to music written by jazz pianist Russ Freeman. Listening to the spare, touching melody, you can understand why it attracted her. But with her tear-jerker lyrics and the dirge-like arrangement, her version is morose and muddled.
Carey, who's only 21, isn't just a singer and composer. She's also a producer and arranger. Four of the songs were done with the production team of David Cole and Robert Clivilles, of C+C Music Factory. Their contributions do somewhat perk up two dance tunes--the title song (heavily influenced by the Emotions' 1977 hit, "Best of My Love") and "Make It Happen"--but neither number approaches the quality of any of the C+C material.
Another problem is that on many songs Carey's voice is too far down in the sound mix and consequently is somewhat overwhelmed by the music. This kind of mix is common on records by feeble-voiced dance-music singers, but surprising on one by a powerhouse vocalist like Carey.
Now, the good news. Carey does more straight-ahead singing and less vocal showboating this time, though those signature squeaks (borrowed from one of her idols, the late Minnie Ripperton) still pop up far too often.
There is one marvelous song on the album, "If It's Over," co-written with Carole King. Yes, it's gloomy, but unlike the other songs, which are weighed down by sappiness, the lyrics are simple, direct and unsentimental. Singing in an achingly slow gospel style, Carey cannily milks every ounce of anguish out of the lyrics.
This song reminds us that Carey is a formidable talent, who may be inching toward that identity that Houston seems to find so elusive. But beyond this song and maybe two other solid vocal performances, there's little evidence of that talent or vision on this album.