A gut reaction to Whitney Houston’s new album would be that it’s like listening to a mid-life crisis. A majority of the tracks are dominated by synths and drum machines, which can be credited to a revolving door of producers from R. Kelly to Akon and Swizz Beatz to StarGate, the Norwegian team that put together Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.” Songs like “Worth It” and “Nothin’ But Love,” which are clearly geared towards potential heavy rotation on top 40 radio and/or clubs, seem awkward solely for the fact that it’s Whitney Houston who’s singing, rather than a modern pop star like Rihanna. But those are just gut reactions. The truth is, Houston’s latest effort, I Look To You is far from a mid-life crisis.
First and foremost, Houston’s voice is still flawless. It rises and falls elegantly; she can be just as powerful as she was on “I Will Always Love You,” but now with a touch of frailty. Mixed among the computer-heavy beats lie some genuinely beautiful, albeit a bit corny, ballads that showcase Houston’s incredible range. The lyrics are exactly what you’d expect--schmaltzy, melodramatic, cheesy, uninspired, whatever you want to call them—but none of that matters when Houston, amidst a marching crescendo of strings and a wandering piano, hits that seemingly impossible note towards the end of “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.”
But in between these sprawling ballads are of course the attempts of reinventing Houston as the pop-diva she once was, and at points it simply fails miserably. “Nothin’ But Love” is dull and obnoxious with a talk-singing bridge that’s nearly impossible to get through, while “For The Lovers” elicits primarily exasperated eye-rolling. However, all is not lost. The Alica Keys penned track “Million Dollar Bill,” which opens the album, is an upbeat R&B cut with swinging drums and a swilling funk guitar that’s simply a wonderful pop song. And her cover of Leon Russell’s hit “A Song For You” starts with only a piano, before building into a catchy, disco-fied chorus of synths with the original piano still plucking away in the background.
I Look To You comes across as not so much as an attempt at reinvention, rather an attempt at rebuilding. After a messy divorce, plenty of tabloid fodder, and her first album in seven years, Houston finds herself among a new crowd weaned on the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna, heavy synthesizers and clap-tracks. And it's certainly odd when Houston attempts to adapt to the new style of music around her, even if her voice hasn't changed a bit. Ultimately, though, I Look To You presents itself as a modest statement of return.