With a new disc, Houston’s back - but not better than ever

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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If the brains behind the public service announcements that caution young people against the deleterious effects of substance abuse are looking for a new angle, especially in our everyone-wants-to-be-a-pop-star world, they might want to find a way to use Whitney Houston’s new album, “I Look to You.’’ The disc, out Monday, brings one of the mightiest R&B and pop voices of the past 25 years down to earth. This, apparently, is your voice after being on drugs. (And married to Bobby Brown.)

It’s heartening to report that these 11 tracks - which range from good to adequate - offer proof that, at 46, Houston could still sing circles around you, me, many current pop stars, and some of her peers. But they also sadly make plain that the magnificence of her instrument - exemplified by the dramatic punch of “I Will Always Love You,’’ the zigzag agility of “I’m Your Baby Tonight,’’ the operatic highs of “All the Man That I Need’’ - has been tarnished by her tabloid-baiting lost weekend.

Once you get over the realization that in the seven years since her last album, “Just Whitney,’’ Houston’s power and sustain have been replaced by a thinner, grainier sound - one that she and her collaborators try to maximize - there is hope among the wreckage. Much of it is emotional and packed into lyrics instead of dizzying vocal runs.

The themes - broad and general, like most Houston songs, which are written by hired guns - are the ones you might expect from a diva attempting a grand comeback after a fall from grace.

There is gratitude extended to those who supported her (“Noth in’ But Love’’), amends to those she hurt (a cover of Leon Russell’s majestic “A Song for You’’), renewed faith in her higher power (“I Look to You’’), a recognition of her own power to pull herself from the abyss (the Diane Warren ballad “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’’), and hope for a love-filled future away from the haters (“Salute’’). It is a familiar and unspectacular mix of mildly funky pop-soul and adult contemporary ballads that could pass for a decent Brandy album. There are also a few general-issue, frothy dance songs to remind you of Houston’s glittery, up-tempo youth.

While the degradation of her voice doesn’t exactly enrich the redemptive themes in the way you might expect - it’s just too distracting - her pathos is palpable. This is especially true on the R. Kelly-penned title track and the Russell song.

“I Look to You’’ is boilerplate Kelly in his earnest “I Believe I Can Fly’’ mode, all stately pianos and gospel choirs. But as Houston lets loose a tentative trill from her clotted throat as she seeks strength, it breaks the heart both for her spirit and her voice. On “A Song for You,’’ as she sings of making bad rhymes and trying to make better choices, there is a spiritual edge to her yearning, as if singing is helping to heal her wounds. Even when it inexplicably, but not unpleasantly, turns into a disco number, you can feel the sadness amid the striving toward optimism.

One of the nagging sensations that arises while listening to “I Look to You’’ is that some of the writers and producers were stingy with their best material. Is it really possible that the invincible Norwegian hit-making team Stargate couldn’t cook up an irresistible Top 40 confection for Houston that could be the equal or better of one they’ve crafted for Beyoncé or Rihanna? (Perhaps the absence of Ne-Yo, the third member of the songwriting triad behind tunes like “Irreplaceable’’ and “Take a Bow,’’ is to blame.) “Call You Tonight’’ is one of the album’s strongest and most contemporary-sounding songs, with its clap-track, breezy acoustic guitar, and crisp energy, but it’s not a Stargate home run. The same goes for Akon’s contributions. Lite reggae jam “I Got You’’ has some nice melodic interludes and spacey synths, and the duet “Like I Never Left’’ is tuneful but insubstantial. The Diane Warren ballad sounds like a Diane Warren ballad. Nate “Danja’’ Hills’s fidgety “For the Lovers’’ has good energy, a neat piano riff, and utilizes her growly lower register well, but has a limp melody. It’s as if they collectively decided that “good enough’’ was the high bar.

What’s missing are a couple of major, positive “wow’’ moments, as a vocally weakened Houston and utilitarian tracks don’t add up to the triumphant reentry that properly kick-starts a comeback. Instead, the sum is a clutch of B-plus pop soul tunes that give us hope that as Houston gets stronger so will her material.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at