Celine Dion: Is She Cool? Someday, Maybe, but Not Now

Every dog derided as hopelessly uncool in one decade has its day somewhere down the line. Look at the entities

Every dog derided as hopelessly uncool in one decade has its day somewhere down the line. Look at the entities that have blossomed under the light of recent reappraisal. Disco? Cool. The Bee Gees? Cool. Burt Bacharach? Cool. Kiss? Cool. Fleetwood Mac? Cool. Such belated iconography is invariably intended ironically but has the effect of bestowing a second life on artists originally overlooked, either because their careers were cursed by built-in obsolescence or because their saturation success caused them to be perceived as spineless servants to a vast, invisible, taste-free consensus.

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So let’s jump forward 15 years to a time when Celine Dion is considered cool. It will probably take until 2012 for society to have advanced to a point where a public expression of appreciation for Ms. Dion is not considered an elaborate put-on. In this atmosphere of tolerance, Celine Dion aficionados will be able to discuss her colossal lung power and how it belies her birdlike frame. They will raise glasses in a toast to the tenacity that saw the French-Canadian canary not only become phonetically fluent in English but also tame the unmanageable frizz with which she struggled during her tenure as a Québécois LeAnn Rimes. They will pay tribute to her unapologetic squareness, noting that while the likes of Janet Jackson, Madonna and Mariah Carey made strenuous attempts to keep their music contemporary and their lyrics confessional and libidinous, Ms. Dion remained untouched by time or trend. Her niche, they will conclude, was high drama; given a plaintive three-minute declaration of heartache, she was capable of delivering a soaring, showy performance. Ultimately, they will decide, she was the unfunkiest of divas. Then mention of her 1997 album, Let’s Talk About Love (550 Music/Epic), will come up, and they’ll fall silent. Because even in that mythical future when Celine Dion is considered cool, Let’s Talk About Love will be thought of as her least cool album.

To the untrained ear, this record is just as much of a sack of suck as her previous outing, Falling Into You . But I say No. Falling Into You featured Ms. Dion’s made-in-heaven collaboration with Jim Steinman, the cataclysmic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” It featured one of hired hitwoman Diane Warren’s most lethal concoctions, “Because You Loved Me.” It featured Ms. Dion’s riven-with-despair rendition of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.” It would even have featured some songs produced by Phil Spector, except that the wandering genius wanted to keep Ms. Dion locked in the vocal booth for six months. Even in his insanity, however, Mr. Spector proved cognizant of the fact that Celine Dion functions best as the eye of the storm.

There is, of course, no Phil Spector collaboration on Let’s Talk About Love . There are no Diane Warren songs, and Jim Steinman’s presence is limited to a meager “Additional Production” credit. In their place, heavy friends have been dragooned into duty on an album designed to set in stone the notion of Ms. Dion as less of a singer and more of an international monument.

The entire project is, in my estimation, an unmitigated disaster. It kicks off in time-honored fashion with a bombastic power ballad, “The Reason,” co-written by Carole King and produced by Sir George Martin. Thus, straight away, we find the inherent wrongheadedness of this record. Carole King hasn’t written a memorable song in many a year and-hello?-didn’t George Martin recently announce that he was quitting the producing racket because his hearing was going? The latter affliction was probably incurred by a silent prayer offered up during the recording of “The Reason” to be struck deaf.

Ms. Dion’s team-up with the Bee Gees is similarly dispiriting. One of the up-to-now immutable laws of science is that if you put the Gibb brothers with a female singer, the results will be sensational. History is littered with examples: “Love Me” by Yvonne Elliman; “Ain’t Nothing Going to Keep Me From You” by Teri De Sario; “Emotion” by Samantha Sang; and “Heartbreaker” by Dionne Warwick. “Immortality” belongs on a whole different sort of list. The cement-laden dirge-taken, horrifically, from the upcoming stage musical adaptation of Saturday Night Fever -defeats both Ms. Dion and the Gibbs. Departing from dramatics proves, as always, a glaring error for this most rigid and unspontaneous of performers. She’s fallen on her face before when attempting to be as one with the rhythm, but Celine Dion has never humiliated herself as comprehensively as she does when mashing it up in a dance-hall style on “Treat Her Like a Lady.” As Seinfeld’ s George Costanza remarked in a similar situation, “Sweet fancy Moses!”

The centerpiece of Let’s Talk About Love is “Tell Him,” a duet with Barbra Streisand. The last time Ms. Streisand made a record with another female artist was on “Enough Is Enough” with Donna Summer. During the recording, Ms. Summer was reportedly so intimidated that she attempted to outdo her partner by holding a note so long it caused her to pass out. Anyone who’s witnessed, through the cracks of his or her fingers, the video for “Tell Him” in which Ms. Dion relates to Ms. Streisand like a newly born fawn nuzzling up against its mother, will sense that this is no diva face-off. The two singers give each other room to emote, restraining themselves until the final choruses before transforming into something akin to a pair of drunks wrestling over the microphone on karaoke night.

But this is nothing compared to the album’s other massive guest appearance. Luciano Pavarotti has sung with Bryan Adams, Elton John and Bono. But Celine Dion has something his previous pop partners have lacked. She’s audible. This proves to be a hideous miscalculation, given the caliber of song they’ve chosen to share. “I Hate You Then I Love You,” a retitled remake of an old Shirley Bassey song, “Never Never Never,” is a clattering camp travesty during which the big man and the little sparrow indulge in some pent-up sexual jousting. All the unleashed octaves in the world fail to expunge the mental image of the most unfeasible coupling since Biggie Smalls and Li’l Kim.

A sliver of redemption is found in the passable version of Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You” and a perky piece of club pop, “Just a Little Bit of Love.” But the only moment approaching Vintage Dion is the crushing ballad “My Heart Will Go On.” Finally, all the components are in place: the ornate arrangement, the overblown orchestration, the thunderous drums and the chorus hysterical enough to allow Ms. Dion to crank up past Valkyrie level. The song turns out to be the closing theme from James Cameron’s Titanic . Fitting, because, even to the Celine Dion cheerleaders in 2012, Let’s Talk About Love is going to go down like that ill-fated vessel.

Celine Dion: Is She Cool? Someday, Maybe, but Not Now