We’re back! And no – this is not an April Fool. Here’s another one of my occasional posts on canonical and/or huge-selling records that I never got round to hearing in full. This time, we’re shunning the critical canon and going pop.
At one point, this was going to be a post on Garth Brooks – to really plug a gap in my knowledge of ultra-successful music. I mean, regarding Brooks I knew nothing at all other than: Stetson, stage shows, millions of records sold, Chris Gaines.
But Chris Molanphy on Hit Parade did a Brooks episode that filled those gaps in my knowledge, and frankly left me uninterested in hearing any more. So I decided to go with an ultra-successful pop record instead. Whitney I discounted – at least for the time being – on the basis of her having pretty widespread critical appreciation, especially now. So it was a toss-up between Shania and Céline. I went with Céline. Seemed like there’d be more to dig into. Let’s dig in, then.
Well known and widely read it may be, but Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love, an examination of Celine Dion’s 1997 album of the same name, feels like a period piece these days.
As he says himself, Wilson is not a poptimist by instinct. Not, at least, when he first wrote his book as part of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of slim volumes on classic albums. Wilson grew up an indie kind of guy, and his dislike for Dion and her music was sharpened by the fact that he lived in Montreal – in Dion’s Francophone heartland – when the success of Titanic made her truly inescapable. His book, then, was a critique of his own tastes and that of self-declared indie hipsters as much it was as a critique of Dion’s music. It was an attempt to reach a poptimistic position on an artist that indie fans routinely held in contempt by a writer to whom it didn’t come naturally.
Now, to generalise hugely for a second, music fans who are younger than me – which is to say Millennials* and Zoomers – don’t have a rockist indoctrination to shake off that Wilson and I had (or have – it’s always a work in progress). They like what they like, and that’s frequently a bit of everything, from pop to progressive metal. Now they’re at an age where they have achieved media prominence and get to write books, books such as Wilson’s don’t need to be written anymore.
That Celine Dion’s music needs no aesthetic defence in 2021, then, is one of two starting points for this piece. The other is that – obviously – I’m not familiar with her music at album length, despite the album I’ve picked to write about, 1996’s Falling Into You, having sold somewhere around 22 million copies, including possibly one to my mum, if I’m not misremembering. It was certainly in the house.
Of course, saying something needs no critical defence doesn’t mean that I’m going to like all of it. Simply that, I won’t be discussing where pop sits in an aesthetic hierarchy compared to rock, jazz, folk or any other kind of music, because that whole idea is dumb. And in 2021, that much shouldn’t need saying.
So here goes. Let’s fall into Falling Into You.
It starts big. Really big. Jim Steinman big.
Chris Molanphy, the aforementioned writer and presenter of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast, recently did a deep dive on Steinman. He’s a braver man than I. Steinman’s songs are high-calorie confections, too rich to be enjoyed in quantity, in sequence or on repeat. Even getting through It’s All Coming Back to Me Now once for this piece was a bit of a slog for me, unused as I am to the Steinman diet. The unedited version that begins Falling Into You – seven and a half minutes long – is a minute or two more than I needed, and the five-minute radio edit is an improvement.
That said, there’s much to be admired here. Dion’s voice is a subject we’re going to return to again and again in this piece, but if you want to hear one song that shows off what she can do, pretty much her full range is here, and it’s incredibly impressive. Most importantly for an artist who’s often been accused of peddling fake emotion, I believe her: on this song, every howl and every whisper lands as sincere.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that I believe Dion has experienced such operatic emotions in her own relationships. It’s always a mistake to assume the artist necessarily writes or performs from personal experience (another subject we’ll come back to) or that the first person “I” in a song is the same as the singer’s own perspective. But while I’m listening to It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, I don’t experience a disconnect between text and performer. It never rings false to me. That is, I think, pretty key to selling a Steinman song, and it’s a real skill – one that Dion’s detractors have never really credited her with.
The production and playing are as impressive as Dion’s vocal. Obviously, everyone featured on a Celine Dion record is going to be a top-drawer musician, but it’s interesting listening to this so soon after doing one of these posts on Springsteen – one of Steinman’s all-consuming influences – to compare Bruce’s and Jim’s music.
Springsteen’s songs may be epic and stadium-sized, but they always sound like they’re being played by a bunch of doofy bar-band guys. Take Bruce’s pianist Roy Bittan out of the E Street Band, though, and give him Tim Pierce, Eddie Martinez, Jimmy Bralower and Kenny Aronoff to play with, and the effect is very different. From the opening basso-profundo chord, Bittan is here less doofy bar-band guy, more Wagnerian piano-forte overlord. Since they were recording in late 1995 and not, say, 1987, the drums and guitars commit no grave lapses of taste. But Martinez does do something rather adventurous and flashy with his whammy bar early on – it’s a detail, not featured loudly, but it’s a reminder that this is the guy who had widdly-widdly-widdled all over Run-DMC’s Rock Box, fifteen years before.
I’m not sure when the phenomenon of multiple producers on a single album became a thing, but it’s evidently something that began a little earlier than I’d imagined; Falling Into You lists eight different production teams. After It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bittan, Steinman and Steven Rinkoff (Steinman’s long-time recording engineer) exit the stage for a while, and David Foster takes over.
Now, Foster has had a hand in some great records. As great as Boz Scaggs’s Jojo. As great as Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Has Gone. But on the whole, Foster’s discography, especially as a producer, is a dispiriting list. This is a guy who worked with Michael Bolton multiple times.
On Falling Into You, his first production vehicle is a Diane Warren song. My cup runneth over.
Because You Loved Me, from the film Up Close and Personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is the sort of song that gives Celine Dion a bad name. She agreed to record it, I suppose, and so is author of her own misfortune, but still. Of course, I knew the song – have heard it hundreds of times, in fact – but it’s even more oppressive when listened to closely than it is heard on the radio in the background.
This record does not have a hair out of place. The sheer amount of industrial effort that goes into making a record like this is evident in every note, and you can’t help but think: all that expertise, all that time, all that work, for this? There is, as with every Warren love song, no reality here. No musical jagged edges, no lyric that suggests a genuinely human point of view – nothing personal or idiosyncratic. No sentiments that haven’t been worn smooth like a shiny pebble. Dion does a professional job with it, as you’d expect, but the overall effect is emetic. Let’s move swiftly on. We’ll have to deal with Foster again later, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.
Falling Into You, the title track, is one I had mixed feelings about at the time. On the one hand, it sounded very, very different – in a good way – to the rest of pop radio in 1996, with its Latin American percussion, martial snare rolls and prominent cavaquinho, and I appreciated the fact that Dion was willing to undersing for an entire song if the moment called for it (those who criticise her for oversinging – which she is guilty of at times – seldom praise her when she doesn’t).
On the other hand, its intimacy was bound to make a 14-year-old boy go “urgh”, and the fact that this was Celine Dion – only in her twenties, but clearly not an artist aimed at teenagers – getting all sensual and breathy made it all the more uncomfortable. That the song featured a Careless Whisper-style saxophone solo just added to the problems.
Today, saxophone apart, I think the song is really quite lovely. The backing track is, apparently, the same one as the Marie Claire D’Ubaldo original, including her backing vocals. There’s not a lot to choose between the two recordings. Dion’s vocal is, as you’d expect, smoother and more virtuosic; D’Ubaldo is a little more fragile, occasionally just slightly flat. What a contrast, though, to the vacuous Because You Loved Me. Wilson talks a couple of times in his book about how much more comfortable Dion seems when singing in French – how much better a singer she sounds – and we’ll put the hypothesis to the test later. But listening to Falling Into You, I wonder if it’s not as much to do with having a text she relates to as it is simply a French/English thing. Dion’s said herself how much she loved these lyrics, and you can tell that from her performance of them.
Make You Happy is by Andy Marvel [insert Andrew Marvell/To His Coy Mistress joke for the Eng Lit majors], who’d scored a big hit a year before as producer and co-writer of Diana King’s Shy Guy. It starts with a florid piano fakeout, but Make You Happy is, like Shy Guy, a reggae song, or a species of it. It’s reggae as understood by groups like Ace of Base: programmed R&B-ish drums, an offbeat guitar skank and just enough syncopated movement in the bass to suggest Jamaican music, while remaining at heart a Euro-pop record. Dion sounds like she’s having quite a good time singing it, particularly the verses, during which she gets to stay low in her range, where her rather pointy voice is at its fullest and warmest.
It’s hard to feel strongly about this kind of thing one way or another. It could do with a middle eight, or losing a minute of its length, but perhaps what this kind of record really needs is the blank affect of a Linn Berggren vocal; Dion’s effervescence gets a little wearying after four and a half minutes, which include a chunky 30-second fadeout.
Seduces Me, all sincerity and Spanish guitar, finds Dion back in breathy mode. Written by John Sheard and Dan “Sometimes When We Touch” Hill (I know. We won’t go there), its main problem seems to me a mismatch between performance and text. Halfway through the song, the softly picked guitars are joined by drums and bass. They’re not ’80s-style enormo-drums, as you may have expected, but they still act as a cue for Dion to ramp up in volume and intensity.
The thing that can make much of Dion’s music predictable and a bit samey (and this is true of many artists’ music, in all honesty) is the predictable shape of the recordings in terms of arrangement and vocal delivery. It doesn’t matter how hushed the opening is when you know that three minutes later, Dion will be projecting at full volume, drums will be crashing and reverberating, and politely distorted guitars will be chugging away in the background, while strings saw portentously on top. I like Falling Into You (the title track) precisely because it rejects this template for something less generic. The arrangement of Falling Into You (for which Marie Claire D’Ubaldo and her production team deserve most of the credit, in fairness) grows organically from and is thematically appropriate to the song, both musically and lyrically. Perhaps Seduces Me was intended to play to the Think Twice audience. The difference is that, while Think Twice is a breakup song where a degree of melodrama is natural, or even welcome, Seduces Me is a come-on. It’s rarely a good idea to get your partner in the mood by screeching at them about how hot they make you. Frankly, that’s red-flag behaviour.
Next up, a cover of Eric Carmen’s All By Myself – one of the ur power ballads. The Carpenters’ Goodbye to Love was released three years before All By Myself, granted, but where the Carpenters’ record married sentimental ballad and distorted rock guitar solo (for which inclusion Richard Carpenter received hate mail), Carmen brought together sentimental ballad, big drums and solid, four-square weight. It’s a slow and stately trudge of a song. Bring all those elements together, and you have the power ballad as we know it today.
By the time Dion recorded her cover of All By Myself, the form had long since been codified. The key to a successful power ballad in the 1990s was to strip back some of the excesses the form had been subjected to in the 1980s: underplay the “power” aspect a little – dial back the reverb and processing on the instrument sounds, and keep it a little more raw and organic. In other words, to blur the distinction a little between power ballad and plain old ballad.
Unfortately, that’s not what happened here. Instead, producer David Foster (sigh) empties his bag of studio goo all over the song, mixing together sounds and techniques that had long since become cliches through overuse. There are some ghastly choices here: synth sounds that were dated when the record was released and are laughable now, drums that are cavernous but too undermixed to support Dion’s skyscraping vocal, choirs (or god help us choir pads) that are wholly extraneous and do nothing but signpost their own unreality. It’s bewildering this record got made this way in 1995.
When evaluating a commercially successful but artistically disappointing record, there will always be some whose rebuttal is: well, it sold a gajillion copies, you can’t argue with success. And that’s true up to a point. But I’m sorry, this is Celine Dion singing All By Myself. Any producer – I really do mean any producer – could have paired this artist with this song and had a massive hit with it. Some would also have made a decent record at the same time. Foster didn’t.
What he did do was to go for the iconic. To which end, he challenged Dion to hit that note. And what a note it is: a throat-shredding half-tone climb from E5 to F5 on the “more” of “anymore”, as the key rises from A to Db. Her voice clearly suffers under the strain, and she has always dropped the key substantially in live performance to avoid damaging her vocal cords, but as a once-and-once-only moment, it’s certainly impressive. Perhaps other producers wouldn’t have dared her to go there (Carmen’s original stays in the same key for the outro) and we wouldn’t have that moment, but one note doesn’t redeem an entire track, and ultimately Foster made a barely passable record out of a great song, despite having a singer of fearsome technical ability to work with.
We move on from that dissapointment to probably the album’s nadir. Declaration of Love sounds like someone called in Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band to play the backing track. Ric Wake, who produced Make You Happy, is back as producer and, boy, does he have a stinker. The R&B-flavoured horn-rock sound of imperial-phase Phil Collins seems to be the template here, with the brass credited to “George Whitty & the G.W. Horn Machine”.
Fantastic name apart, these people (if people they be, not synth patches – I’m not wholly convinced they are real, so plastic and tame do the horns sound) are not the Phenix Horns by a long chalk, and the production choices betray no indication that Wake had listened to any new music since 1990 at the latest. The bass tone is that horrid, super-hyped mega-deep but annoyingly clicky active tone you used to get on Sting and Seal records in the nineties, while the lead guitar sounds like a bad Clapton impression.
Saddled with a lemon of a song and a pudding of an arrangement, Dion falls back on her worst instinct as a singer: if the material isn’t there, go big in the performance. From her opening “Come on, wooooh!” to her adlibs during another long fadeout, the effect is punishing. It’s the inverse of her work on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: she completely fails to sell the lyric or the emotion of the song. Granted, she was given lines like “Just like Juliet belonged to Romeo/You can stay prepared that I won’t be letting you go” to work with, but still. I’m amazed this one got through preproduction with no one binning it.
At the halfway stage, then, we’re not doing so well. Despite my best efforts to be generous in my assessment, we’ve seen Dion and her team hit the mark squarely only with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and Falling Into You, and score a glancing blow with Make You Happy, while notching up a lot of misses. How will we get on with Side B?
A promotional single in Mexico and Germany, Dreamin’ of You leads off side B. It’s an adult-contemporary love song, written and produced by Canadian guitarist, songwriter and producer Aldo Nova. With Nova programming the drums and playing much of the arrangement himself, it’s a little airless and lacking in interaction, but the song is a solid construction that gets a lot out of its parade of E major chords. Again, it’s a little dated in 1995, but it pretty much nails what it’s going for.
Another Aldo Nova song, this time produced by David Foster, I Love You is a doo-wop pastiche that might have fit on one of Mariah Carey’s early records. Foster’s production is once again a disgrace: what would otherwise be a sweet little retro album track is pumped up with steroids and made pretty tough to take.
Nova’s song is knowingly silly; in 1996, no one wrote a chorus like “I love you, please say you love me too” without their tongue at least a little bit in their cheek. It’s practically Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs. A small-band arrangement of this song to complete the old-school vibe would have worked fine. It could have been done a cappella, even. But Foster won’t do subtle and he won’t do small, so all the sounds are huge and fake and airless, with nothing organic in the mix save for Dion’s vocal and some electric guitar by Michael Thompson. Even all the harmonies are Dion’s, so there’s no human interaction in the arrangement at all. Nova throws a key change into the middle eight, and another one going into the final repeat choruses, but it’s not enough to stop the song feeling hugely over-extended at five and a half minutes long, and the mismatch between form and content sinks the song entirely.
If That’s What it Takes allows us the opportunity to test Wilson’s hypothesis about Dion being a better singer in French, as it’s an English-language remake of her song Pour que tu m’aimes encore (So that You’ll Love Me Again), which was released on her 1995 Francophone album D’Eux (About Them – I’m learning French at the moment. Can you tell?).
There is a difference. Her singer is gentler, more lyrical, more legato. And yes, I prefer the French version. It’s not even close. But, how much of that is ascribable to the differences between how the two languages must be sung and how much is specific to Dion herself, I can’t untangle. An expert in Francophone pop may be able to tell you more.
(Surprisingly, the song was a hit in its French version in the UK; as a rule, UK record buyers haven’t always been that receptive to non-Anglophone songs until recent years. I suppose, being fair, a lot of Jamaican music with lyrics that aren’t immediately intelligible to most white British listeners have been successful in the UK, going back at least as far as Desmond Dekker. But the only other hit I can think of in the 1990s with lyrics in French is one verse of Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s 7 Seconds, unless you count Encore Une Fois by Sash, which I wouldn’t.)
Anyway, to get back to If That’s What It Takes, it’s fine. Its melody is perhaps a little nursery-rhymeish (which I find much less of a problem in French), but it’s undeniably hooky, and writer Jean-Jacques Goldman’s production – a sort of adult-contemporary dance pop – works a lot better than David Foster’s attempts to pass off his programmed backing tracks as the work of a band.
I Don’t Know is another song from D’Eux translated into English. This is one of the most musically interesting pieces on the record. It’s in 12/8 time, but with a percussion track from a drum machine that suggests 4/4 and a simple synth pad providing the only harmonic backing, the chord changes seem to fall at odd moments when you first hear the song. It takes until the chorus comes along to get used to what’s happening and or the entry of a guitar playing arpeggios in the second verse to properly orient the ear.
From there, it gets ever more stadium-epic, sounding oddly like Wall-era Pink Floyd; Dion’s evocation of “Brutal machines, unbending laws” even sounds like a Roger Waters line. It’s way over the top, but Dion sings it with customary full-bore commitment and pretty much gets away with it. She’s never averse to going big, in French or English, and whether it succeeds or fails seems to rest so often on whether she feels a personal investment in what she’s singing. As with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, the litmus test is whether you believe her – and I do.
It’s followed by another cover. A biggie. River Deep, Mountain High.
Unlike, I suspect, a lot of people, I don’t regard covering River Deep, Mountain High as sacrilege. Far from it. I’ve never been a fan of the Phil Spector wall of sound, and always felt that the song was a comparative trifle, completely buried under Spector’s murk, the whole enterprise only partially redeemed by the ferocity of Tina Turner’s vocal. A Céline Dion version produced and arranged by Jim Steinman sounded, actually, like quite a good idea; a smart marriage of singer, song and production sensibility.
Better, unfortunately, in theory than reality. The whole thing has an unpleasantly synthetic unreality; despite the presence of human musicians Tim Pierce on guitar, Kasim Sutton on bass and Jimmy Bralower on drums, it sounds like it was all done on MIDI keyboards. The horn stabs and sound effects are a very bad idea. Once again, you have to give Dion credit for a full-tilt vocal, especially in the last minute or so of the track, but this is not the version to make me finally get this song. It still seems to me to be held in unwarrantedly high regard.
Another Jim Steinman production, this time in partnership with Jeff Bova, Call the Man was written by Andy Hill and Pete Sinfield, the team behind Dion’s English-language breakthrough Think Twice. Hill and Sinfield are an interesting pair. Sinfield had been King Crimson’s lyricist (and occasional synth player) in the early seventies, but tacked towards pop in the early 1980s after hooking up with Hill. As a partnership, they then wrote songs for such non-avant-garde pop acts as Cliff Richard, Leo Sayer, Dollar and Bucks Fizz, gaining a number-one single with the latter’s covertly anti-Thatcher Land of Make Believe.
There’s not much that’s subtle about Call the Man, however. The “man” seems pretty plainly Jesus, a point underscored by Dion’s performance of the song at the 1997 World Music Awards with a 30-piece gospel choir. As big gospel-pop songs go, it’s definitely not a bad one; Sinfield and Hill write their pop with a certain level of intelligence, and Sinfield’s opening verse contains the striking image, “across the floor, dreams and shadows play like wind-blown refugees”, so he was at least trying. The guitar solo by Ottmar Liebert is rather nice too. Another decent effort.
And so, with Celine at 6-6-1 for the album, we come to Fly, the closing track. This is another translation of a song (Vole) from D’Eux. Halfway between a Disney ballad and chanson, with a very late-1980s bell-like synth piano sound, this one also sounds better in French. That said, the sheer range of Dion’s vocal here is impressive, and the arrangement and vocal sensibility are in harmony with each other in a way that’s not always the case elsewhere on Falling Into You. I’m feeling in a good mood, so reckon Dion finishes the album 7-6-1 – a winning season, if only just. She’s not making the play-offs with that kind of record.
Why did I pick Falling Into You rather than Let’s Talk About Love? Not because Falling Into You celebrated its 25th birthday a week or so back. I hadn’t looked closely enough at the release dates when I picked the record to write about to notice that it was shortly to hit that landmark. It was purely a coincidence.
There were, instead, three reasons, really. First, there’s already a discourse around Let’s Talk About Love, thanks to Carl Wilson’s book. He concentrates on the record as a cultural artefact rather than a musical one, but nonetheless I couldn’t come to it completely fresh having read his work on the album. The other reason is that, as big as Falling Into You and its singles were, they don’t have the continuing cultural omnipresence of My Heart Will Go On and, by extension, Let’s Talk About Love. I didn’t want to deal with all that baggage: Titanic. The Oscars. Elliott Smith. Falling Into You represents a period where Céline Dion had already become one of the most successful musicians on the planet and so was in something akin to a business-as-usual phase of her career, as much as sales of 20 million can be considered “usual”. That phenomenon was interesting to me. Finally, and this may be a suprise, it’s her biggest-selling studio album, in terms of both verified units and estimated total sales.
So, as a business-as-usual mega-selling Céline Dion record, how does it hold up?
It’s not a wholly satisfying, cohesive listening experience. It’s too long, for a start; 14 songs and 67 minutes long, in the version I heard, with eight out of the 14 songs lasting more than four and a half minutes. This kind of bloat was common in the second half of the 1990s, once the record-making habits instilled by the limitations of vinyl had been shrugged off and forgotten by the industry.**
The inclusion of so many songs in so many different styles that contributes to that bloat was presumably a deliberate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. Those who liked their Dion big and epic got the Jim Steinman tracks; those who liked her singing adult-contemporary ballads got the David Foster songs; those who liked Ace of Base-style Swedish reggae got Make You Happy.
The record is at its best, though, when there’s less sense that the songs are going for a precisely defined target market, and are instead a little more idiosyncratic: the title track and the English translations If That’s What it Takes and I Don’t Know. These are good enough, particularly Falling Into You, to bump the overall score up a mark or two, to slightly more than five out 10.
What’s a shame is that it’s always evident, when listening to Falling Into You, how a sympathetic producer could have made a really good record with Céline Dion. Not by forcing her into a non-pop box, excising the silliness, goofiness and occasional lapses of taste that make her who she is, or by making her ultra-contemporary and cool, but by being more selective with material, more ruthless with editing, and avoiding the kind of sickly arrangements favoured by David Foster.
Falling Into You is not, I suspect, a record to convince the non-fan. It didn’t convince this non-fan, at least. But it did show me that Dion’s music has more aspects to it than I’d realised.
*Millennials are getting on a bit now. The oldest millenials – hi! – will soon hit forty.
**Running times of records were for many years circumscribed by the physical limitations of the medium when releasing albums on vinyl. You couldn’t fit more than around 23 minutes on one side of a record without sacrificing an excessive amount of low end. As a consequence, most classic rock-era double albums fit comfortably on one CD and are only a few minutes longer than 1990s “single album” releases like Falling Into You.