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What Have You Done For Us Lately, Celine Dion?

A primer on Celine's career in this century
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(Courtesy Columbia Records)

(Courtesy Columbia Records)

By Kevin Rutherford

Celine Dion is the epitome of ‘big voice, big arrangement, big everything.’ The French-Canadian singer muscled her way into the world’s spotlight in the early ’90s with a string of hits across the globe, practically becoming the definition of pop power-ballad during that stretch. Songs like “Because You Love Me” and “The Power of Love” are tailor-made for the slow dances on your wedding soundtrack, while “My Heart Will Go On” has arguably the best key-changed final chorus of anything of its time, complete with a buildup that would make Marcus Mumford sweat.

But while Dion has maintained her star worldwide, the impact of her post-’90s discography has dwindled in comparison to the juggernaut of singles that helped her top the Hot 100 four times. A recent lack of album releases is partially to blame; after keeping an admirable pace through about 2003, her output slowed considerably, especially in terms of English-language records. Taking Chances hit in 2007, along with the French-language D’elles, but then came silence — until last year, when she pleased French-speaking crowds yet again with Sans attendre. As generally underwhelming as her English-language releases have been in the last 10 years, Dion still turned out some impressive work in this century. You just have to either speak French or appreciate some seriously good vocal and arrangement work to find it.

This week, Dion is back with her first English album in six years, Loved Me Back to Life.

THE ENGLISH RELEASES

A New Day Has Come (2002), One Heart (2003), Miracle (2004)

Who in the States can remember more than… let’s say, three Dion songs since the turn of the century besides her dedicated fans? “A New Day Has Come” — her last top 40 hit in America to date — certainly stuck with many as her comeback single after three years away, sticking to the tried-and-true Dion formula of mid- to low-tempo ballads with an explosion of energy right at the finish line. However, things got a little weird thereafter, beginning with 2003’s One Heart. Though the album was a financial success — it sold over 430,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week — and spawned a surprisingly brawny cover of Roy Orbison’s “I Drove All Night” (made famous by Cyndi Lauper), it marked a bit of a departure from Dion’s usual fare, jumping into sleeker bubblegum pop production that was less earnest and more radio friendly. Max Martin’s inclusion as producer on many of the songs, of course, didn’t downplay the apparent commercial grab. Then came Miracle, a children’s album of mostly singsong ballads that, while beautiful, wasn’t meant to do much more than provide a new collection of lullabies.

Taking Chances (2007)

Taking Chances did just that; unfortunately, a lot of it didn’t work out, and the album barely recorded any radio presence. Much of the album — like the eponymous lead single, for instance — sounds like a Kelly Clarkson B-side from the era, while “Eyes on Me” went full Shakira on everyone and spawned a regretful will.i.am remix. When Celine stuck to her guns, she succeeded. A cover of Heart’s “Alone” soars like one would expect, while Dion’s rendition of Katrina and the Waves’ “That’s Just the Woman in Me” — the album’s best — paints the diva with an established rasp, showing that homegirl can rock, too.

THE FRENCH RELEASES

1 fille & 4 types (2003)

2003 turned out to be a year of experimentation for the singer. While One Heart faltered in this regard, 1 fille & 4 types hit all the right notes. Rather than rely on lush instrumentation and humongous ballads, Dion and co. went back to basics, writing a stripped-down record that is often acoustic or guitar-based. Lead single “Tout l’or des hommes” is catchy as all get out with an alt-rock vibe. “Ne bouge pas” is all country-pop, incorporating slide guitar and other folk instrumentation. The commonplace ballads still run rampant, but hey, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

D’elles (2007)

D’elles, primarily penned by French female authors, is the best Dion release in the 2000s. Though a bit more restrained musically than its French predecessor, it’s still a banger, from the Celtic drama of “Je cherche l’ombre” to the chilling “Je ne suis pas chelle” to the electronic-and-strings majesty of “A cause.”

Sans attendre (2012)

Last year’s Sans attendre continued to showcase Dion’s relative ease in her native tongue. “Ne me quitte pas” represents the brilliant master-class restraint she still possesses; meanwhile, “La mer et l’enfant” is a stunningly beautiful ode to motherhood, led by an accordion wafting in and out of the scene. Like most of her French releases, Sans attendre (and its subtleties) suggest that Dion doesn’t have to rely on huge power ballads — the majority of her U.S. hits — to win over audiences. This could be a commentary on French preferences vs. U.S. predilections, or at least an engaging conversation about the Adult Contemporary radio format and mass America’s expectations of The Lady Who Sang The Titanic Song.

However, success with her French releases overseas and across the border hasn’t exactly equated to much in the U.S. Sans attendre and D’elles didn’t even receive U.S. releases, while 1 fille & 4 types barely broke 20,000 copies sold in America. Altogether, none of her French language albums have broken into the Billboard 200.

TODAY: BACK TO ENGLISH

Loved Me Back to Life (2013)

It’s unfortunate, but while Dion and her producers seem to have learned from past mistakes with new album Loved Me Back to Life, it still falls below the emotional impact of her French-language releases. It’s a return to form of sorts, as evidenced by a chorus that absolutely necessitates one of those “let’s stand at the edge of a cliff, spread our arms and just BELT” music videos for its lead single/title track. While album guest Stevie Wonder sounds superb on “Overjoyed,” he and Dion sound detached from one another, as though the duet was thrown together because, oh, why the hell not! Many of the other songs follow this; whereas Dion’s earlier English releases (and, still, her French fare) felt impassioned and personal, here she sounds like she’s going through the motions.

So while Dion’s English-language work has been spotty in recent years — and remains so with Loved Me Back to Life — her French releases are very worth checking out (if you can find them). In the diva’s massive catalog of songs and records, it’s where she still plays to her strengths, showing that, at 45, she’s still got it — as long as you speak French.

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