Did Celine Dion turn into a slot machine in Vegas? "I was walking dead" are the first words sung on Dion's new album, Loved Me Back to Life. The first thing most listeners will notice won't be the macabre yet timely pop-culture reference, but, instead, the ghastly level to which her voice has been fed through the AutoTune gauntlet. There's little question that a performance schedule as rigorous and monotonous as Dion's Las Vegas residency all but requires a vocal pick-me-up. But have those dulcet pipes most critics love to hate (or is it hate to love?) ever sounded quite so generic?
Dion has always chased the most unfashionable elements of whatever's currently in fashion, and that intrinsic ungainliness is one of the things that's made her so endearing. If Chaka Khan was every woman, Dion is and ever shall be every awkward soccer mom. Only now, she's taken her CD-R of Celtic pop tunes out of the SUV stereo and is bumping a mix of midtempo neo-power ballads from the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry instead. Typical of mothers struggling to fit in with the next generation, the chief intention of Loved Me Back to Life is to pass for contemporary.
Nowhere is that strategy more pronounced than on "Incredible," a power ballad that finds Dion trading lines with Ne-Yo, both singers sounding shockingly interchangeable thanks to the heavy vocal post-production. Similarly, the edited yelps Dion unleashes during the chorus of the chugging title track could've come from just about anyone, even as the song itself lurches with very specific echoes of Justin Timberlake flexing his gravitas. (Though, as it turns out, "Loved Me Back to Life" has been remixed for the full EDM treatment with surprisingly credible results, so maybe she's a bit shrewder than the snark generation gives her credit for being.)
In this context, Dion's cover of Janis Ian's rueful "At Seventeen" comes off less like a lament for childhood dreams that didn't come to pass and more like a lilting word of advice from someone old enough to know better, which is precisely the zone where the album excels: when Dion drops the act and embraces her manic, Hallmark card-brandishing guru of schmaltz. Who else would bookend a duet of "Overjoyed" with Stevie Wonder (complete with all those "castles of love") between two concentrated shots of affirmation like "Thank You" and "Thankful"? Celine Dion, our lady of perpetual Celexa, that's who.