We gave it a C
Mariah Carey came from backup-singer nowhere to make a 1990 debut album, a radio-ready meltdown of happy dance-pop and gospel-tinged ballads that raked in armloads of Grammys and attracted hordes of devoted listeners. While the songs (”Someday,” ”Vision of Love”) were nothing earthshaking, the 20-year-old Carey belted them out in a forceful, bravura style that made most of her MTV peers sound mush mouthed. But like many a new sensation enjoying audience respect, Carey endured an equally vigorous backlash from critics who couldn’t find the heart in her soul. Recalling the scorn that greeted overnight stars like Nelson, Wilson Phillips, and Vanilla Ice upon their arrival at the top of the charts, critics dismissed Carey’s work as crowd-pleasing pop or as vocal grandstanding. Cheerleaders for Carey’s accomplishment and critics suspicious of her all-too-professional product agreed on only one thing: The girl has an amazing voice. So it’s no wonder that her second record, Emotions, is out to prove that the singer is as sincere as she is well trained.
If anything, though, Emotions ends up sounding colder and more calculated than Carey’s debut. It ticks along like a Swiss watch — finely tuned, glossily assembled, filled with precision instrumentals and spectacular vocal turns. But the album has no drama to pull the listener along. Carey seems terrified of downtime; she reaches for epiphany on every cut. While she makes ample use of her technical gifts — sliding from soul shout to whisper to her famed ear-piercing, stratospheric shrieks — her singing doesn’t compensate for the limited emotional range of her prefab song writing. The hackneyed high school poetry of her lyrics (she wrote them all) holds no surprises; for most of the album they either lament the recent departure of some cad or praise the next Mr. Right.
The title cut, which is also the album’s first single, percolates along in mid-tempo celebration of a new love. It’s the first and only time on the record that Carey’s up-there squeals make emotional sense: She sounds as if she way too overwhelmed to put her passion into words. Elsewhere Carey relies on her impressive technique because she has no other way to deepen or highlight the feeling of a song. She draws out the intro into to ”You’re So Cold” with mile-long arpeggios set to a solemn march, promising all kinds of sky-high gospel gorgeousness, but the song turns into a snappy dance number that sounds trivial after the big buildup. Only ”If It’s Over,” an end-of-the-affair weeper cowritten by Carole King, sounds like real life, as if the confused emotions it describes weren’t already worked out before Carey set pen to paper.
Carey talks a lot in interviews about her sincerity and love of music, and she may have both. But for all her soaring and sighing, she has nothing original to tell us about romance. Emotions, like the singer herself, is the hybrid progeny of a venerable tradition — the tradition of the R&B diva — and crass commercial instincts. it’s gospel without soul, love songs without passion, pop without buoyancy. C