'Butterfly' is sweet as honey Review: With a caress rather than a crescendo, Mariah Carey makes music that soars on her lush, confident album.

September 16, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

If ever Mariah Carey had the right to play diva, it would be now.

She is, after all, one of pop music's leading ladies, with a string of hit albums to her credit and her 12th No. 1 single on the charts at the moment. She isn't just another pretty voice, either, having taken an active role in both the writing and production of her albums.

Factor in pop radio's fondness for over-the-top vocalizing, and Carey would seem to have every reason to cut loose on her current album. Yet the sound she goes for on "Butterfly" (Columbia 67835, arriving in stores today) is surprisingly circumspect.

Forget the diva act others indulge in. There are no pour-on-the-drama ballads or shake-the-rafters showpieces here. Instead, Carey's singing is as soft as butterfly kisses, all whispered pleas and breathy exhortations, wrapped in a thick gauze of keyboard and vocal harmonies. It's an approach that lends "Butterfly" a lush, soft-focus feel worlds away from the power ballad approach of her early work.

Carey's vocals may not be as in-your-face as they once were, but that hardly means she sounds like some shrinking violet. If anything, it's the opposite -- beneath Carey's hushed delivery lies an awesome confidence, the conviction that she'll be heard no matter how softly she sings. Maybe that's why the songs on "Butterfly" are among the richest and most affecting of her career.

Certainly, there's a more personal feel to the album. From the gentle nostalgia of "Fourth of July" to the confessional depths of "Close My Eyes," there are times when "Butterfly" seems less like a collection of songs than a sort of musical journal.

That effect may not always work to her advantage, given the public changes her private life has gone through recently. Having separated from her husband, Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola, earlier this year, Carey is already the subject of rumors on the gossip page, and such songs as "Breakdown," "My All" and the title tune will only feed the speculation.

How much imagination does it take to suppose, in "Breakdown," that when she sings, "You called yesterday to basically say/That you care for me but that you're just not in love," she's thinking of her estranged spouse? What listener wouldn't wonder if "My All," with lines like, "I'd risk my life to feel/Your body next to mine," isn't about some illicit affair? And when Carey sings, "Spread your wings and prepare to fly/For you have become a butterfly," in the title tune, isn't she really singing about her newly single self?

Maybe. But even if these songs aren't about Carey's innermost secrets (and I strongly suspect they aren't), what matters is that there's a very real wellspring of emotion behind them.

Take the title tune. A slow and sweet bit of soul balladry, it has all the touchstones of R&B tradition -- softly tinkling piano, a slow-boil rhythm arrangement and gospel-schooled harmonies on the chorus. What sets it apart is Carey's vocal, which is not only whisper-soft at the song's beginning, but drifts up into an airy falsetto on the second verse. This is no diva-strength show of force; even when the chorus kicks in, Carey continues to hold back, her improvised counterpoint floating above the main theme like wisps of smoke over a chimney.

That's certainly not the way Whitney Houston would have sung it, but that's precisely what makes Carey's approach so effective. Because instead of trying to dazzle us with her own vocal virtuosity, Carey keeps our focus on the butterfly, emphasizing its fragility and grace. Not only does that make it more dramatic when she does resort to full voice on the bridge, but it helps us feel the emotions that power the song.

Nor is "Butterfly" the only song on the album that offers such a perfect blend of music and message. There's a gentleness to "Fourth of July" that perfectly conveys the dreamy pleasure of romantic memories, and a steaminess to her languid phrasing in "Babydoll" that conveys carnal desire far more convincingly than explicit lyrics ever could.

It isn't all moody music, though. "Honey" is a straightforward party tune with an easy-going groove, some lightweight rapping and gently flirtatious lyric (please tell me those aren't really double-entendres in there), while "Breakdown" finds Carey getting into the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony groove so completely she almost didn't even need the help of Thugs Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone. And "Fly Away," the David Morales rethink of "Butterfly," is as exuberant as the original is meditative.

Still, it's the quiet stuff that both carries the album and underscores Carey's strength. Maybe that's why the album's best moments -- the stately, prayerful "Close My Eyes" and Carey's exquisite, Dru Hill-assisted cover of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" -- don't seem like singles so much as private pleasures.

Obviously, that's not the sort of thing a diva would do. And "Butterfly" is the better for it.

Feeling Emotion

To hear excerpts from Mariah Carey's release "Butterfly," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6101. See other Sundial numbers on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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