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Saturday 10 October 2009

Album review: Whitney Houston's 'I Look To You'

Posted in: Music
By Andrew Grear - 8th September 2009

It's been seven years since Whitney Houston released her last album and one of the big questions regarding I Look To You, her latest offering, is... has she still got 'the voice'?

So let's get this out of the way first; no, she hasn't. The crisp, clear tone that she used to make sound effortless has gone; replaced with an instrument that is huskier and a little more throaty. Anyone looking for a vocal money-shot like she delivered in I Will Always Love You can keep on looking because it isn't here.

This of course is not to say she can no longer sing - Whitney is still an impressive vocalist technically, and is well aware of the limitations her voice now has. The album showcases a selection well suited to those limitations.

Of the eleven tracks, only two are ballads; the title track and the trite Dianne Warren penned I Didn't Know My Own Strength. The rest are all mid to up-tempo slickly produced R&B club tracks with more than the occasional disco nod. Whitney negotiates them all with relative ease, and rather than pushing her voice into doing things it no longer can, she knows when to hold back which imbues the set with a sense of subtle dignity. In terms of lyrical themes you have one of two choices; either love or inspirational strength.

Opening the album is the first official single, Million Dollar Bill, written by Alicia Keys. It's a sophisiticated piece of R&B disco on which Whitney exudes confidence and elegance. This continues onto Nothin' But Love, a proud defiant piece where Whitney gives a 'shout out' to everyone from her family, to her teachers, to "anyone that tried to hate on me" and "even the ones that tried to break me".

The first of the two ballads comes in the form of the title track I Look To You and it's certainly the better of the two. It's a simple affair destined to become an anthem for anyone going through hardship; and it's practically begging for a drag queen to wring every drop of emotion out of it on stage at Family bar.

The following track features the only appearance from a guest vocalist on the album, Akon. While the track is pleasant the addition of Akon seems out of place next to Whitney. His voice sounds weedy compared to hers; though one can be thankful that this is the sole concession to guest vocalists and she hasn't tried to shoehorn a cameo from Flo'Rida somewhere in there.

It's back to the dance floor for the album's sole cover, A Song For You, which, although starting as a sedate piano led affair, kicks in with the dance beats a minute and a half in.

The second ballad of the album does not fare as well as the first. I Didn't Know My Own Strength, in typical Dianne Warren fashion is over-wrought and full of cliches. Whitney could surely have done better than "I thought I'd never make it through, I had no hope to hold on to". It seems to be a clear attempt to try and cling to her glory vocal days, and it doesn't work.

Two of the best tracks come towards the end of the album. For The Lovers abandons any vocal pretenses and injects more than a hint of autotune into a track that glides along a slick club beat. It's a damn good track. The closer, Salute is another defiant slow jam with Whitney proclaiming "I'm a soldier girl, in this world, I stand alone, I can be strong".

Whitney may not have the voice she used to, which is a shame, as on some of her earlier songs her voice can inspire pure euphoria; but on I Look To You there is a dignity and elation to her voice which is certainly nice to hear.

Whether you want to call it a comeback or not (Whitney doesn't, as she claims on the final track, she's "been here for years"), this is a welcome return for one of the best singers in the business.

On the video below: Whitney performs I Look To You live at Good Morning America last week.

Andrew Grear - 8th September 2009

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