Wednesday 9 June 2021

Céline DION: Falling Into You



(#544: 23 March 1996, 1 week)


Track listing: It's All Coming Back To Me Now/Because You Loved Me/Falling Into You/Make You Happy/Seduces Me/All By Myself/Declaration Of Love/(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman*/Dreamin' Of You/I Love You/If That's What It Takes/I Don't Know/River Deep, Mountain High/Call The Man/Your Light*/Fly

(*on European and Australian CD editions only)

If Elvis had lived, he'd have recognised Céline Dion as his true heir. Just as Elvis, after he was presented with "If I Can Dream," swore that never again would he sing a song in which he did not thoroughly believe, there is absolutely no face or pretence about Mme Dion, no diplomatic screen to block or dilute her intimate intensity.

Her approach is almost the diametric opposite of Mariah Carey's. Where Daydream saw her strive to flee the towering shadow of her husband - shades of Susan Alexander assembling jigsaws at Xanadu - Céline wants to you to know that she is blissfully happy, that she means that happiness, and that she wants no more than to hold onto that happiness for as long as possible. Listen to the mutated doo-wop of "I Love You," the way in which she plays vocal tennis with her backing singers ("And maybe I, maybe you!, maybe you!, maybe you!"), the birthday party exhilaration which floods like the centre of a stick of Blackpool rock down and along her "River Deep, Mountain High."

Observe the winking pop-reggae bounce of "Make You Happy" or the upbeat pink lollipop of "Declaration Of Love," so reminiscent of early Madonna, before the world and Madonna did things to her ("so right you taste my sweeeetness on your lips!," "I'll make it better than you ever dreeeeeeeamed!!"). This is the voice of a woman who has got everything, and everyone, she needs to feel fulfilled, so if her "Natural Woman" doesn't quite match up to Aretha's authority (but what does?) or Carole King's routed fragility, it is nevertheless a powerful declaration of love principles.

Yet, as in all good stories, there abide doubt and dread. "Falling Into You" is a mysterious float, possibly inspired in part by "In The Air Tonight" but replacing Collins' ingrained paranoia with a lucid litheness, a blue absence of weight or depth which really doesn't place the song and its arrangement far from shoegazing. Within the song's fibres, carefully policed by guest percussionist Sheila E., Céline whispers that "while you sleep, I will miss you." The song had been recorded the year before by the Argentinian singer Marie-Claire D'Ubaldo; it is a complex song, with plenty of half-tones (pace Brecht), and initially the singer felt the arrangement was a little too forward and drowning out the song's core. She suggested some modifications to help bring out the song's emotions more readily, all of which were happily accepted by co-writers and co-producers Rick Nowels and Billy Steinberg, and discovered, perhaps to her own surprise, that she could maintain a high level of control over her music.


Similarly there is a pent-up desperation about "Seduce Me," co-written and co-produced by Dan Hill of "Sometimes When We Touch," and its harmonic parallelogram and guitar commentary, let alone the soaring, not-quite-of-this-world vocal, would not be out of place on side two of the Cocteau Twins' Treasure.

Where needed, she will rock, and Aldo Nova's triptych of songs ("Dreamin' Of You," "I Love You," "Your Light") ensures that she does, as well as demonstrating a pleasing sense of humour in places; in "Your Light" her voice at times sounds like Axl Rose.

But there is also a deep well of impermanence. Diane Warren apparently wrote "Because You Loved Me" with her father in mind, since he helped get her started with music when she was still a child, buying her a 12-string guitar on which to write songs and a metal shed in which she could practise doing so, as well as taking her to various music auditions; I am not quite clear whether David Warren was still alive at the time of the song's conception, but its "Wind Beneath My Wings" homilies are undercut by the rather sinister use of the past tense ("loved") which I am sure was intended. I have no doubt that, for her part, Céline was singing the song with René in mind. As I say, there is nothing in Céline's songs that she does not believe.

We know from "I Don't Know" - one of three revisited songs from her 1995 French language album D'eux (the others being "If That's What It Takes" and "Fly") - how starkly cold and bereft she would be were her love ever to disappear (she piles on the rhetorical "I don't know"s like a calmly frantic poker player, constantly upping the stakes), but her "All By Myself" set new standards for pop laments.

Reaching back to the original, it is odd how power pop, for all its alleged purity and perfection, never really became popular. Myself, I think it’s the charts’ loss, but the fact remains that when most people think of Alex Chilton they think of “The Letter” rather than Sister Lovers, to which “All By Myself” makes an unlikely companion. The song also reminds us of the age-old tradition of writing pop songs based on classical pieces; Barry Manilow had a Billboard top ten hit with his Chopin adaptation “Could It Be Magic” and then it was the turn of Rachmaninoff.

Again it is instructive to listen to the full seven-minute-plus album version of “All By Myself” since the long piano interlude in the song’s middle was actually the first thing that came to Eric Carmen’s mind. Working backwards, he then figured that the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor – “Adagio sostenuto,” no less – would form a good basis for the song’s verses, while the chorus was informed by, but did not slavishly mimic, “Let’s Pretend,” a song which he had written for his old band the Raspberries in 1972.

The Raspberries should have been far bigger than they actually were; their 1974 swansong “Overnite Sensation (Hit Record)” went Top 20 in the States but despite rave reviews and blanket radio play here the song never caught on in Britain. When “All By Myself” happened Carmen was roundly condemned as a sellout, which is rather unfair; think of its haunted cloisters as the expression of someone who lived through and came through the sixties and everything they promised, just to find disillusionment and a nearly unutterable emptiness at the end.
Yet while Carmen's contained hurt still packs a gentle punch, Céline's reading a generation later made the source of the pain bleed vividly. At times she seems scarcely able to breathe, let alone articulate, her grief - the steel guitar, echoing Hugh McCracken on Carmen's original, covers that pain more than adequately, at least for a while - but eventually it all gets too much and her voice explodes on that “anymoooooooooooore” key change, erupting through the roof of pop politesse and as wounded an expression of betrayed expectations as pop has ever delivered (producer David Foster presented her in the studio with that unexpected ascension and she was determined to match his dare - no other singer could get anywhere near her).

That magic moment - and it is one of the key moments in all of pop music, that key change - cut an awful lot of people very profoundly, in ways usually too profound for pop to realise. Who could possibly take her higher? Jim Steinman?

Steinman co-produced three songs on the album; "Call The Man," which, as was common with its writers, Andy Hill and Peter Sinfield (see also Bucks Fizz's "The Land Of Make Believe"), was a political allegory disguised as a right-on gospel song ("Needed in the chaos and confusion/From the plains to City Hall"), a demand for deliverance and salvation, accompanied by a gentle choir which eventually disperses into atoms of near-silence. Steinman also took a crack at "River Deep, Mountain High," and funnily enough that works, mostly because the producer had the good sense to treat it as a runaway rocker and Céline has just about the most fun that she has on this record, racing through its slightly strained analogies with good humour. She has the wit not to try to reproduce Tina Turner's inhuman climactic scream but instead yells out in triumph. The track gladly canters towards a stock-car pile-up. A different wall of sound, but perhaps a more usable one.
Which leaves us with the album's opening and closing songs. The opening song is the third of the Steinman productions, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now," as originally performed by Pandora's Box on their solitary, Steinman-helmed self-titled album from 1989. It seems like the natural sequel to "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" - that same wind machine, those same sleigh bells, a singer who sounds more weary than thrilled - but if anything the song darkens that scenario into something potentially very morbid.
Steinman said that it was based on the part of Wuthering Heights which nobody talks or sings about or films -  you know, Heathcliff with the gravedigger's spade, dancing on the beach in the moonlight - in terms of resurrecting the dead. Elaine Caswell's original reading certainly leaves little doubt in the listener's mind as to the song's real intent (it is alleged that, while recording the song, Caswell collapsed on five separate occasions in the studio).

With Céline, the song seems more optimistic but remains emotionally ambivalent. Out of the limbo of nothingness which ushers in the song, she sternly itemises all the things she hated about him (with a terrifying growl on the word "banished" in the line "And I banished every memory you and I had ever made") and perhaps about the wider world ("There were nights of endless pleasure/It was more than any laws allow"). But he comes back to her, and she finds that she cannot resist. She misses his moments too sorely, and is that quietude at the end a contented purr or a withered white flag of surrender? The song, as was Steinman's intention, is an extended meditation on obsession - the moment when, on return, one's defiance dilutes to subservience. About the terror, he said, about loss of control.

The album's final and shortest song is also its least characteristic and most heartfelt song. Originally recorded for D'eux under the title "Vole," "Fly" was inspired by the singer's niece Karine, who died, in the singer's arms, in May 1993 of cystic fibrosis, at no age at all. Everybody who heard it, including the song's writers and producers, was taken aback at how raw and emotional this performance was. It accentuates the cracks which have been building up in Céline's voice right the way through the album and in places her vocal on "Fly" is naught save cracks and whispers. After barely three minutes, the song dissolves, its spirit flies free.

The performance exemplifies why Falling Into You touched so many people, and why, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, Céline is the natural heir to Presley. She fills that same yearning gap where people want to be told that the singer feels the same as they do about so many elemental things, so much vital stuff that pop generally prefers to leave out. There are no character studies on Falling Into You, no irony, no rallying around the record collection.

No - this is emotion, as experienced by you, me and everybody else, and as expressed by those whom we would normally choose to guide us. One cannot understand why the likes of Adele and Ariana and Jennifer Hudson will subsequently speak to, and for, the masses, without first understanding how Céline Dion elected to pave the way for them. Remember this was all done at a time when pop, and the power ballad stripe in the middle of its road in particular, were routinely sneered at - and, despite all of that, Céline came through and triumphed, in ways at which Oasis could only ever have imagined doing. Falling Into You moved thirty-two million people across the world...think of that figure for a moment or buy it, 2,170,000 of whom were in Britain. Hers is the spark which lit the flame enabling that phoenix to rise again.