One of modern music history’s premier divas has officially launched her long-awaited comeback, as the one and only Whitney Houston returns to center stage this week with her sixth studio album, I Look to You. Last heard from — musically, at least — on 2002’s horrendous, howlingly awful slap job Just Whitney (am I the only one who remembers, for all the wrong reasons, “Whatchulookinat”?), Houston is back — hardly wizened, mind you, but hardly none the worse for wear, either — cautiously (perhaps overly so) dipping her big toe back into the water to see if time and the ever-dynamic world of pop have passed her by.


It’s a fair question, absolutely, and the defiantly easy answer to it is, naturally, hell to the no. Now 46, a decade of impossibly hard living has clearly taken its toll on Houston, and you need look no further than the album’s cover art if you doubt that: she’s still strikingly beautiful, no question, but she has been airbrushed all the way down to her toenails, to the extent that, at least in this still shot, she scarcely resembles the velvet-voiced angel whose golden pipes made her a living legend before she had even reached the age of thirty. And oh, those pipes: once as criminally, fabulously smooth as fresh silk, seven years of negligible activity and practice (following nearly two decades of constant touring and recording) — not to mention chasing after that sleazy scalawag she was married to for far too long, and the alleged persistent drug use, reports and rumors of which have dogged Houston for years now — have weathered The Voice, and have (seemingly) stripped Whitney of her remarkable ability to dart between octaves with such effortless, ecstatic ease. Listening to Look the first time through, it becomes quite clear quite soon that this is not the Whitney of yesteryear, and that there will be no pomp and bombast this time around.


Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but for those of us who were reared on Whitney’s crystalline wailing, hearing her take the subtle route is a jarring, sobering fact with which to come to terms. And indeed, it took me one complete listen to this record to fully temper (and tamp down) my expectations. (I swear to Jesus, I waited through the entire album for the Whitney of old — the one who could shatter steel with the depth and breadth of her staggering range — to, at very least, make an appearance, and when she didn’t, I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by her, as though she should feel ashamed of revealing herself to be a mere mortal after decades of seeming superhumanity.) And indeed, I spent most of that first complete listen heartsick, thinking that almost all of its material was leagues beneath Whitney’s profound talent.


Taken on its own terms, though, I Look to You proves itself to be a fine (if not fantastic) album. True, you’re never going to confuse “Nothin’ But Love” or “Call You Tonight” with Houston classics like “So Emotional” or even “My Name is Not Susan” — in actual fact, the former may even make you downright wistful for the latter — but they are rather catchy, given half a chance. So is Alicia Keys’ contribution “Million Dollar Bill,” a fun but oddly subdued ’70s throwback which hits somewhere between “Farewell My Summer Love” and “Best of My Love” on the scale of uptempo riddum and blues. Twice, Look lands within shouting distance of the kind of rafters-raising ballad — on the R. Kelly penned title track (this set’s lead radio single), and on the Diane Warren composition “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” — that long ago became a Whitney trademark, and both times, Houston plays it safe, opting to dig deep and find the truth inside the treacle instead of soaring high above the schmaltz, as though she prayed hard for (and was granted) a handful of humility in her time away from the spotlight.


The album’s only true misfire comes via a horridly handled cover of Leon Russell’s oft-remade “A Song for You,” which starts off as admirably tender and torchy as you might expect, but then, halfway through, inexplicably morphs into a four-on-the-floor techno jam, as though Houston has suddenly become possessed by Kristine W. (I swear to Jesus I’m not making that up!) On the atrocious scale, it handily tops even Just Whitney‘s desperate plea-for-sympathy cover of “You Light Up My Life,” and listening to this, you can’t possibly fathom who at Arista thought it was a good idea.


Quibbles aside, the album, on the other hand, is an easy call: I Look to You is not the best album Whitney has ever made, but it’s almost certainly the best album she was capable of making right now, and while that might not be enough for any other artist to earn a pass with, it’s somehow enough for her. The Voice is blemished, no longer as perfect as it was in its electric youth, but then, the same can be reasonably said of those of us who have spent their entire lives listening to that same voice. And in a summer which has seen the tragic demise of pop music’s other great superstar, it’s a true thrill — however quaint — to see this woman finally triumphing over adversity. Crack is wack, and Whitney’s back, y’all.


COMING THIS WEEK: an extended playlist of essential Houston tracks.

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