WHITNEY HOUSTON: I Look To You (Label: Arista)

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Back in 1985, 22-year-old Whitney Houston was a bright-eyed, fresh-faced debutante who possessed a lovely gospel-reared voice, photogenic looks and a model’s figure – remember the back cover swimsuit shot on her debut album? But how things have changed. In the early part of the current decade, Houston’s life – and subsequently, her career – started spinning out of control and heading earthwards at high velocity as a rocky marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown and an addiction to crack cocaine took its toll. Now, though, Whitney is back, delivering her first proper album since 2003. Given the infectious quality of the album’s first single, the disco-tinged ‘Million Dollar Bill’ – co-authored by Alicia Keys and which samples a fair-sized chunk of Loleatta Holloway’s old ’70s Salsoul number, ‘We’re Getting Stronger’ – it looked like Ms. Houston would return with a real hum-dinger. Sadly, though, ‘I Look To You’ is profoundly disappointing. It starts off well, though, opening with the sassy ‘Million Dollar Bill’ but then a series of instantly forgettable R&B-meets-pop tunes – helmed by Harvey Mason Jr, the irritating Akon, R. Kelly, Stargate and David Foster – plunges the album into an all-consuming sea of mediocrity. Thankfully, Houston’s vocals show little sign of deterioration but much of the material – ‘Worth It,’ ‘Like I Never Left,’ ‘Call You Tonight’ and ‘Salute’ – doesn’t stretch her enough: it’s too juvenile, too shallow and ultimately ill-judged. The latter comment certainly describes Houston’s rendition of the Leon Russell-penned/Donny Hathaway-associated ballad, ‘A Song For You,’ which starts off like Hathaway’s classic version but then is transmogrified by the Norwegian production duo Stargate into a cheesy disco work out. Much better is the autobiographical power ballad, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,’ and the title track, a plodding bittersweet slowie where Houston gets a chance to inject some real emotion into her performance. Even so, these two songs are a million miles away from the transcendent feeling transmitted by ‘I Will Always Love You’ back in the 1992. So Whitney’s back – but on this evidence, she’s got a long way to go to emulate her past triumphs.
(CW) 3/5