Whitney Houston used to sound invincible.
Those songs she did as part of "The Bodyguard," still the bestselling soundtrack in history, may have been about breakups and self-doubt, but they sounded like they came from a woman at the top of the world and at the top of her game. Her booming voice radiated power and elegant confidence, a masterful combination as rare and as stunning as a shooting star.
Obviously, that couldn't last - she feel back to earth years ago.
The Houston of today - who Monday releases at age 46 her first album in seven years, her much-trumpeted "comeback," "I Look to You" (Arista) - is a shadow of her former self. That's not a crack about her much-talked-about weight loss or drug abuse. It's not a veiled jab about her tumultuous divorce from Bobby Brown. It's, unfortunately, the impression you get from listening to her new album.
"I Look to You" isn't a bad album - like, say, 2002's desperate, unfocused "Just Whitney" - but it is neither artistically strong like 1998's "My Love Is Your Love" nor an outright commercial smash like her early work. It is (gasp!) kind of ordinary.
The title track outlines the problem. Written by R. Kelly, "I Look to You" is the type of pop ballad that should be right in Houston's wheelhouse, but she kind of fouls it off. Her gifts have always been in phrasing and power, and none of that shows here. Her delivery is pretty but plodding, and while she hits some big notes, they don't really build to anything or provide any emotional payoff. They are big for big's sake, seemingly added because that's what's expected of her. Instead of inspiration, they deliver an emptiness that doesn't help the song connect and, as a result, the single didn't catch on with fans or radio stations, spending only one week at No. 74 before falling off the charts.
The second single "Million Dollar Bill," a midtempo dance track with a disco feel written by Alicia Keys and produced by Swizz Beatz, will likely fare better, though it highlights the album's other problem. Houston is not just another singer. In fact, part of the reason she has been criticized far more intensely through her struggles with drug use and her marital difficulties is because her natural ability is so obvious. When talent is as close as it gets to divine, the public is not patient when it looks like a gift that grand is being squandered.
"Million Dollar Bill" is a good song, but it would have sounded essentially the same coming from any number of singers, from Keri Hilson to Celine Dion. Over the years, Houston has made her songs far more distinctive than this or the equally pleasant Stargate production "Call You Tonight" or her duet with Akon on "Like I Never Left." The lack of her indelible vocal signature on these songs raises some questions about how strong she really is at the moment.
On "I Look to You," the glimpses of Houston's former glory come at unexpected times. Her take on Leon Russell's "A Song for You," which breezes through the Donny Hathaway version into a club anthem and back again, is a great surprise in the vein of "I'm Every Woman."
But the song that suggests that Houston's future will be brighter than her recent past is "Salute," also written by R. Kelly, which recaptures the street vibe she was cultivating on "My Love Is Your Love" and delivers the kind of verses her fans have been waiting for. She calls herself "a soldier girl" and playfully offers a kiss-off "salute," as well as quoting LL Cool J's "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years" line. "Took me all of these years to realize that you don't belong here," she sings with a fire that isn't matched elsewhere on the album. "You say I'll never do better? Yeah, right. Whatever."
"Salute" is what Houston sounds like when she's connected to a song and firing on all cylinders. It's imaginative and dramatic and, yeah, it has an air of invincibility. It's also the kind of song that her true "comeback" album will be built around. "I Look to You" isn't it.
Whitney Houston albums: The high and low notes
WHITNEY HOUSTON (1985)
THE HITS "You Give Good Love," "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know," "The Greatest Love of All"
THE STORY Almost too good to be true. The daughter of Cissy Houston and goddaughter of Aretha Franklin has model looks, a once-in-a-lifetime voice and legendary music exec Clive Davis helping launch her debut.
SALES 13 million
THE DRAMA None. Remember when that was the case with Whitney?
THE HITS "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go," "Love Will Save the Day"
SALES 9 million
THE DRAMA Some claim she has sold out her gospel/R&B roots. At the Soul Train Awards in 1989, she gets booed.
I'M YOUR BABY TONIGHT (1990)
THE HITS "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "All the Man That I Need," "My Name Is Not Susan"
THE STORY Whitney gets a bit more street, but perhaps makes her biggest splash with her memorable version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl during the Gulf War.
SALES 4 million
THE DRAMA She starts dating Bobby Brown.
'THE BODYGUARD' SOUNDTRACK (1992)
THE HITS "I Will Always Love You," "I'm Every Woman," "I Have Nothing," "Run to You," "Queen of the Night"
THE STORY Though the acting was debatable, the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard" was an unprecedented success, as "I Will Always Love You" became the longest-running No. 1 single at the time, and the album became the biggest-selling soundtrack and 12th-biggest album ever.
SALES 17 million
THE DRAMA She marries Bobby Brown on July 18, 1992.
MY LOVE IS YOUR LOVE (1998)
THE HITS "My Love Is Your Love," "It's Not Right But It's OK," "Heartbreak Hotel," "When You Believe," "I Learned From the Best"
THE STORY After successful acting turns in "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Preacher's Wife," Houston returns to recording full time with her most current-sounding album ever, mixing reggae and dance with her pop ballads.
SALES 4 million
THE DRAMA The rumors of drug use start when Houston starts canceling concerts and high-profile appearances, including getting fired from the Oscars in 2000, months after airport security in Hawaii discovers marijuana in her luggage and in Brown's luggage.
JUST WHITNEY (2002)
THE HITS Remixes of "Love That Man" and "Try It on My Own" top the dance chart, but no pop successes.
THE STORY Billed as a comeback from all the turmoil, it becomes her first outright flop.
SALES 1 million
THE DRAMA In the campaign leading to the album's release, she famously tells Diane Sawyer, "Crack is cheap - I make too much money to ever smoke crack," but admits to doing cocaine and smoking marijuana.