Once upon a time, Mariah Carey's albums had infantile titles like Butterfly, Rainbow, Glitter and Charmbracelet – sickly-sweet enough to be some pre-teen cartoon superheroine line-up.
Then they started to get serious, the equivalent of Mariah wearing specs to appear more mature: The Emancipation Of Mimi was followed by E=MC2, succeeded now by Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, which sounds like a novel by Toni Morrison.
But, whatever she calls them, her albums all feature much the same kind of featherlight R&B grooves, pricked here and there by those wineglass-endangering squeaks which are Mariah's stock-in-trade. So it is with this work, which opens with the suggestion that it might be a concept-album following the singer through her day – a sort of soft-centred Ulysses – but then seems to leap prematurely to the bubble-bath and boudoir that most of us encounter after dark, before ultimately slamming into the brick wall of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is".
Early accounts reported Mariah working with Timbaland, and Jermaine Dupri, though neither of their efforts have made it to the album. But there's a reason why soul divas employ vast teams of different producers. Here, Carey ended up writing and recording the entire album with co-producers Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, a fact that becomes blindingly evident by the fourth or fifth track, when you start to wonder if you're not just hearing the same track over and over again, with minor variations: it's all pretty much the same drum sounds, the same tempos, the same keyboard textures, fronted by the same downy vocal timbre expressing the same small range of emotions.
Such differences as there are are largely matters of accessorisation: "Candy Bling" is standard bathtime tea-light Chablis chill-out music, "The Impossible" anticipates Marvin Gaye re-making "I Want You" with harpsichords, and "Up Out My Face" features an incongruous reprise in high-school marching-band style. Any notable moments are entirely down to Mimi herself, whether emitting stratospheric squeals on "Inseparable", swapping overlapping vocal phrases with herself on "Ribbon", or layering perfect lines of "oh-oh-oh-oh"s behind her lead vocal on "Standing O". There's no denying her extraordinary vocal facility, but it's akin to a Ferrari laying rubber, spinning its wheels furiously but progressing not one jot.
The sole exception is the single "Obsessed", a stalker song whose lyrics lead one to surmise it's her eventual response to years of jibes by Eminem. It's the best thing here by miles; but of all singers, does Mariah really need to use that Auto-Tune?
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