''Let's Talk About Love'' and ''All That Matters'' fail to impress with ballads of woe and schlock

All That Matters

Celine Dion and Michael Bolton: yawn.

As with many aspects of business and society, adult contemporary pop has downsized itself for the times. A typical lite-FM station is now as likely to play lean, sensitive alt-rock (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Paula Cole, Duncan Sheik) as it is histrionic format stalwarts like Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. The move may signify a return to the roots of the format — the ’70s, when soft-rock stations programming Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt first sprouted up — but the trend is probably far less academic in origin. After being pounded for a decade with weightily produced AC fare, listeners may simply want their overwrought sentiments cast in less bombastic, more intimate settings.

In these turbulent times, Bolton and Celine Dion are what could be called classicists. None of this pared-down, nuevo-sensitive introspection for them. On their new albums, adult contemporary still adheres to time-tested traditions: lyrics so specificity challenged that they can apply to any and all scenarios, and arrangements that open with a soft, muted introduction (often played on electric piano or gently plucked guitar) and build to an overpowering, belted-to-the-heavens chorus. It’s music for people who turn every unrequited crush or affair gone bad into a melodramatic, soul-crunching catastrophe (which, admittedly, can sometimes be the case), and both singers adhere to these guidelines with damn-the-torpedoes fervor.

With her wrinkle-free alto and plain-Canadian-Jane image, Dion is arguably the most unthreatening diva ever to conquer the pop charts, and her bland-ambition appeal was sealed with the success of last year’s multiplatinum Falling Into You. For its follow-up, Dion and her cohorts have pulled out all the stops: This is less an album than the music-business equivalent of an overbudgeted Hollywood blockbuster.

Start with the ingredients. Aiming for the widest possible audience, Let’s Talk About Love is top-heavy with renowned duet partners (Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, Luciano Pavarotti), proven middle-of-the-road producers (Walter Afanasieff of Mariah Carey fame, David Foster, Jim Steinman), and an obligatory remake (a precisely enunciated version of Leo Sayer’s ”When I Need You”). Most of the album is composed of the heavy-hearted ballads that have made Dion a star, but for added crossover appeal, it also includes a beat-by-numbers dance track (”Just a Little Bit of Love”) and an overarranged stab at reggae dancehall (the unintentionally amusing ”Treat Her Like a Lady”). And to cement the music-film bond, it even features a movie theme (for the similarly epic Titanic)!

Just as recent big-budget summer movies have piled on special effects at the expense of plausible story lines, Let’s Talk About Love forgets that a pop album, no matter the budget, needs solid songs. Most of the 15 here, from the Gibb brothers’ banal ”Immortality” (written for the forthcoming London stage production of Saturday Night Fever) to the air balloon ”My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic),” are flimsy concoctions that droop under the weight of their arrangements. Streisand glides like buttah into the duet ”Tell Him” — making Dion sound like margarine in the process — but the song is an Uberschlock ode to subservience. Dion gives it her all, sounding hurt or empowered as each number demands, but her voice has so little personality that it too is lost amid the ornateness.

Bolton recently trimmed his trademark mane for a more downsized ‘do, but fans needn’t worry. He’s still the same old tormented lover (albeit one who won’t be using as much shampoo in the future). With its contributions by Babyface and Tony Rich, whose mellow-soul approach seems utterly bare-boned next to Bolton’s standard attack, All That Matters portends a musical haircut as well. Bolton reins in his razor-edge throat for a good deal of the record. He still sounds in pain, but not as the result of a botched hernia operation.

That change — and Rich and Babyface’s phoned-in tracks — is the only minor modification of what is essentially the same album Bolton has been making all decade. The lyrics are Hallmark cards for tortured romantics (”We are joined at the soul/With a heart that don’t know how to let go”); and despite the occasional light touch, the music still feels leaden and synthetic sounding — Bolton may be the only person in America nostalgic for 1991. The album plods on lethargically for an hour before collapsing from its own unfulfilled ardor. What is the opposite of lite FM, anyway — high-calorie FM? Let’s Talk About Love: C All That Matters: C-

All That Matters
  • Music