Mariah Carey’s perplexingly titled new album, "Me. I Am Mariah ... The Elusive Chanteuse," begins with a meditation and ends with a sort of confession.
"Cry." opens the album, with Carey singing slowly, in stately fashion, over a warm organ, and harmonizing with herself -- a gospel simulacrum. The album concludes with the title track, a minute-plus spoken bit in which she talks about her once-pure child heart, "before it was ever broken," and "the peaks and valleys that have made me who I am today." It’s remembrance, but also an intimacy shared with the listener. (This track is available only on the album’s digital version.)
Of all the great soul singers of the modern era, Carey has always been the least explicitly tied to the black church. The hugeness of her voice has always been more of a weapon used in the service of love than a tool of ecstatic reverie. And yet its sheer scale -- the power, the range -- has constantly set her apart, forcing her to create her own categories of pop or to fit somewhat awkwardly into existing ones.
But at root, Carey has always been a secular devotional singer. And "Me. I Am Mariah ... The Elusive Chanteuse" (Def Jam), her first album of originals since 2009, may be the gospel album she’s always been capable of making, without spending much time worrying about faith. Opting for arrangements that either explicitly nod to religious music, or that take in other devotional pop forms, this album shows how a mature Carey, now 44, may move into the next phase of her career, while also showing how her old strategies are encumbrances.
Three songs -- "Make It Look Good," You Don’t Know What to Do," the deluxe track "The Art of Letting Go" -- have string sections arranged by Larry Gold, a key figure behind the majestic quality of 1970s Philadelphia soul, as close to secular church music as pop has ever come.
And in places, Carey employs actual gospel strategies, like the slow build on "Cry.," which is in the vein of Carey’s early hits like "Vision of Love," but without any of the romantic theater.
These are, by and large, this inconsistent album’s bright spots, the decorous vintage soul of "Make It Look Good" suggests a future in which she spends an album steeped in one time period.
But Carey’s career can be boiled down to the war between those instincts and her breezier moves, the ones that have kept her relevant but also looking over her shoulder. The less timely she is, the more singular her music is. Imagine if she really believed.