Céline Dion: Courage review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

A team of young, hip producers signals Dion’s newfound cult status, but it’s the wobbly-lipped ballads, not EDM, that she does like no one else

For decades, you knew where you were with Céline Dion. She belted out power ballads, she wowed the crowds in Vegas, she sold millions and millions of records. And she would never, ever be fashionable. There were no unexpectedly funky B-sides for DJs to dig out and confound the dancefloor with; no forgotten early concept album (bar an unreleased Phil Spector collaboration) hinting at an intriguing musical path not subsequently followed. Dion seemed to have arrived pretty much as she remained: parked defiantly in the middle of the road, flicking the Vs – or whatever gesture the Québecois use to express disdain –at passing trends. Indeed, Canadian critic Carl Wilson used her 1997 album Let’s Talk About Love as the basis for a book interrogating the meaning of so-called bad taste.

Céline Dion: Courage album art work
Céline Dion: Courage album art work Photograph: PR Handout

And then, the damnedest thing happened: Céline Dion somehow became hip. Rappers including Drake and Desiigner queued up to have their photo taken with her at the 2017 Billboard music awards. Lil Uzi Vert couldn’t get a selfie but posted an Instagram video of himself and Machine Gun Kelly smoking a joint while Dion was on stage, and proclaimed her performance of My Heart Will Go On “beautiful”. She was the toast of this year’s Paris fashion week, snapped in a variety of mind-blowing couture outfits: at one juncture she appeared on an electric scooter wearing a black bondage collar with silver spikes. Younger hit-makers are apparently desperate to work with her. Theories as to what has happened abound, ranging from public sympathy over the deaths of her husband and brother to nostalgia for the less complicated 1990s. The most prosaic explanation may be that millennials who grew up hearing their parents play her albums have them embedded in their psyches, the music you hear before you’re old enough to make judgments about what’s cool being notoriously hard to shake.

Certainly, it happened without Dion really changing her musical approach. The credits for her last English-language album, Loved Me Back to Life, featured Sia and Tricky Stewart, a co-author of Rihanna’s Umbrella and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, but they bent to Dion’s will rather than vice versa. It was Vegas-wowing ballads all the way. Six years on, however, Courage ups the ante: Sia is back in the supporting cast, alongside David Guetta, Sam Smith, Eminem producer DJ Khalil and so many top-flight songwriting teams that if the studio had been bombed, pop music would probably have ceased to function entirely.

No expense has been spared, but their brief – updating Dion’s sound without frightening the horses – is a tough one. At its worst, Courage ends up peddling the kind of dreary, blanched take on contemporary pop that packs Radio 2’s playlist, replete with self-help lyrics such as “before I love you, I need to love myself”. The Sia co-write Baby resembles Jess Glynne, which is clearly no way for Céline Dion to sound. That said, it’s better than Nobody’s Watching, which involves pallid Euro-reggae backing and lyrics bemoaning political correctness, and is every bit the unalloyed triumph you might expect Dion singing a reggae song about political correctness would be.

Céline Dion: Imperfections – video

Other tracks take the bull by the horns, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps constructed with an eye on the way Cher has courted the section of her fanbase primed for high camp, Flying on My Own offers up poppy EDM with Auto-Tuned vocals and a banging house piano. Lovers Never Die, meanwhile, lunges at R&B. Dion gives it her all – to her immense credit, she metaphorically steers her electric scooter head on towards whatever producers throw at her – but there’s no escaping the fact that her voice sounds deeply weird attempting to mimic the hip-hop-influenced intonation of a present-day R&B star.

After all that, the best tracks on Courage stick close to the music that made Dion famous. In fashion terms, they augment her signature style with hip accessories rather than encourage her into an outfit that doesn’t suit: a hint of fizzing synth here, a light suggestion of post-Winehouse retro soul there. For all the 2019 accoutrements, and the lyrics that frequently allude to her widowhood (I Will Be Stronger; For the Lover That I Lose), you can sense Dion’s comfort with this material: big, swelling sagas of heartbreak and stoicism, delivered in grandstanding, hair-streaming-in-the-wind-machine style. The title track in particular is a nailed-on, crowd-rousing anthem of wobbly-lipped fortitude that she could have recorded at pretty much any point in the last 30 years. Its hipness or otherwise seems beside the point. There may conceivably be someone out there more interested in hearing Dion do pumping house music or cod-reggae than Courage, but as it reaches its climax, drenched in high-drama strings, that’s hard to imagine.

This week Alexis listened to

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Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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