Mariah Carey is pretty consistent. She’s never really made an all-out dud. Even the most nominal of fans can always find something enjoyable on her many studio albums. It’s just that sometimes they’re so clunkily and pretentiously titled, many don’t bother to check them out.
In stark contrast to snappily titled early releases like “Daydream” (1995), “Butterfly” (1997) and “Rainbow” (1999) came more recent efforts such as “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel” (2009) and the ludicrously titled “Me. I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse” (2014), the lowest-selling album of her long career.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or an album by its title (“Angel” and “Chanteuse” both had worthy moments) but thankfully we can get past all that titular tomfoolery with “Caution,” (**1/2 out of four) her Epic label debut out last week.
Is it a great start-to-finish record? No. And if you’ve been out of the Mariah loop for awhile and pick it up thinking there’s gonna be a barnburner like “Honey,” “Make it Happen” or “Dreamlover,” well — dream on. Any longtime music fan knows sometimes our favorite acts don’t always make the record we wanted them to. The “Caution”-era Mariah, now in her late 40s, is musically more subtle. These tracks don’t come roaring out of the gate. This is a richly atmospheric record you can play anywhere; its slinky, sexy, lite hip-hop grooves (courtesy a wide array of top-shelf producers) are easy on the ear. The handful of rap cameos from Ty Dolla Sign, Slick Rick, Blood Orange and Gunna are woven in deftly. There’s a sonic cohesiveness (although some might call it a mid-tempo rut) to the whole thing that’s refreshing.
It’s also a tight record with just 10 songs clocking in at 39 minutes total. Carey deserves kudos for reining in both musical excess and overall bloat here.
The best cuts all come early. “GTFO” (“get the fuck out”) is mellow and chill and would sound great on a turntable. Despite it being a sly and cleverly worded kiss-off, it’s an ear worm and a great opening cut.
First (non-promo) single “With You” drips with atmosphere and Carey and a lover enjoy “shots of Remy/playin’ confessions and our bodies blending/ooooh I’m in love it’s true/yeah damn I fux witchu.” Of course she’s no Bob Dylan (Carey co-penned all 10 cuts), but we never expected her to be. It’s again mellow, the chord progressions flow like melted butter and the lyrics are loose enough so as to give her plenty of room to improvise as the song reaches a boil.
She does it all with her usual tricks — doubled vocals an octave higher, ad-libby sounding outro lyrics, cascading vocal melismas and even a subtle cameo from her famed “whistle register,” (the upper reaches of her vocal range which early on were her trademark). Carey has struggled in live performance in recent years. Her range has at times appeared shot, her pitch shockingly iffy and even her mid-range lacking the luster it had in the ‘90s. But with all the studio bells and whistles at her disposal, Carey sounds great on “Caution.” The range is there but you never feel like she’s beating you over the head with vocal gymnastics.
The title cut is mellow, slinky and catchy. Several tracks follow in similar lush, always mid-tempo fashion — cute “A No No,” radio-friendly and current-sounding “The Distance,” vapory Streisand-referencing “Giving Me Life” and plinky, sputtering “Stay Long Love You.” She’s variously horny, nostalgic, ready to put a douchey lover in his place and so on. There’s no grand statement here about anything, but that’s OK.
There are only two out-and-out duds — inane “One Mo’ Gen” (just her hoody way of saying she wants to have sex again over neo-Vaudevillian chords) and nicely textured but lyrically weak “8th Grade,” which makes absolutely no sense.
The record only changes gear at all on final cut “Portrait,” a heartbroken piano ballad that ends on an optimistic note and a major chord. It’s the only cut that particularly goes anywhere, reaching a nice little musical/vocal froth that just as quickly simmers back down. You never particularly feel in these choices that Carey is reining things in to save herself taxation. That could be a factor but it feels more like an artistic choice and overall it works quite well.
Sadly Carey is now — by sheer age and sexism alone — several years into the inevitable radio shut-out that plagues all divas after about age 35. She had a decent hit (no. 15) with Miguel with “#Beautiful” in 2013, but her last no. 1 (“Touch My Body”) is a full decade behind her. “With You” has done OK on some of the minor charts but hasn’t cracked the Hot 100, which would have been unthinkable for Carey in the ‘90s or early ‘00s.
How our various veteran lady artists tackle this sad reality creatively is always interesting to witness. “Caution” is no “E=MC2” (Carey’s last great record) but it’s uber current sounding, subtle and captures the singer vamping around like she’s still in her fun-loving and sexual prime without coming off as Norma Desmond-ish. She’s hovering near — if not totally hitting — a late career sweet spot that sounds warm and inviting whether radio decides to do anything with it or not.