It's hard to be a diva without drama.
When we listen to someone like Whitney Houston sing about love, we expect it to be larger-than-life love. Likewise, when she sings about sorrow and heartbreak, we want to come away feeling as if we've shared in the depths of her suffering. Because we know that, as a diva, she's had higher highs and lower lows than any of us.
Trouble is, separating real-life troubles from something a songwriter made up can be really tricky -- especially for those fans who only know the stars through what they read in the gossip columns.
It's no wonder, then, that Houston's new album, "Your Love Is My Love" (Arista 19037, just released), includes a note stating: "The events & characters depicted in this album are fictitious & any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental."
In other words, Houston wants us to know these songs aren't about what we think they're about.
So when we hear her telling her abusive, less-than-faithful lover off in "It's Not Right But It's Okay," we're not to imagine the lyrics have anything to do with the rumored infidelity of her real-life husband, Bobby Brown. Likewise, when she sings in "If I Told You That" about giving in to temptation and having a fling with a friend, we shouldn't suppose she's thinking of any friend in particular.
These are songs, not confessions.
Houston's insistence that these lyrics -- none of which were written by her -- are pure and total fiction will likely leave some listeners thinking she doth protest too much, but her uneasiness is understandable. The gossip columns in recent years have been full of stories and insinuations about Houston's private life, leading to widespread speculation about her marriage and romantic interests.
But what makes the personal aspect of these songs more pointed is that with this album, Houston moves away from the high-gloss pop of her biggest hits and toward a grittier, more urban sound.
Working with such producers as Rodney Jenkins (who did most of Brandy's current album), Wyclef Jean and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Houston's sound is more streetwise and soulful than ever. Not that anybody's going to mistake her for Mary J. Blige; she never gets that down. But such tracks as
"Heartbreak Hotel," in which Houston swaps done-me-wrong stories with Faith Evans and Kelly Price, are funky in ways Houston has never been funky before.
"My Love Is Your Love" isn't a total makeover, of course. Diane Warren's songs outnumber those by Missy Elliott, and Houston hasn't entirely given up on big, string-drenched ballads, as the treacly "You'll Never Stand Alone" makes plain.
But it's encouraging to hear her take so many chances with the music. A decade ago, had she covered the Stevie Wonder hit "I Was Made to Love Her," she probably would have stuck close to the Motown original. With this album, she not only relies on a thumping, Caribbean-style groove but actually personalizes the lyric, turning the song from a tribute into a genuine, emotional statement -- even if we shouldn't assume the lyrics are actually about her.
"My Love Is Your Love" (Arista 19037)
Sun score: ***
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Whitney Houston's new release, "Your Love Is My Love," call 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6199.
Pub Date: 11/18/98