E = MC² makes my head hurt.
Mariah Carey, the Long Island mall queen who has never met a note she couldn't stretch into octave overkill, opens her new album with a flurry of particularly painful shrieks, a showoff moment that goes horribly, cat-explodingly wrong.
I repeat: Ow.
What was she thinking? Or drinking? MC's previous disc, 2005's 6-million-selling smash The Emancipation of Mimi, had an unintentionally funny title, a self-indulgent nod to the singer's flighty tabloid troubles. But the music within (including Grammy-winning ballad We Belong Together) was relatively smart — or relatively smart enough to help her over a midcareer slump.
E = MC², Carey's 11th studio album, which comes out today, has a downright clever title, a wink-wink twist on the bombshell-with-a-brain mystique, a la Marilyn Monroe. But in this case, the music within turns out to be a lazy, generic mess: limp, brain-poking pop that makes the Einstein-inspired title even more of a ripe, red satirical target.
Alas, critics can snipe all they want. Synth-processed single Touch My Body, a generic midtempo grind featuring the requisite T-Pain cameo, is already a No. 1 smash. The utterly forgettable come-on is her 18th topper on the Billboard charts, moving her past Elvis' tally of 17 No. 1 hits. The record is held by the Beatles, who had 20
No. 1 hits. Yep, Mimi could beat the Fab Four by year's end.
I repeat: I need an Advil.
Most of the 14 tracks pass by in a forgettable cloud of cheap perfume and high arrogance, as Carey, 38, grocery-lists her material likes and romantic dislikes over beats produced by such knob twiddlers as Jermaine Dupri, Danja and Scott Storch. One minute she's street, the next she's sweet, a two-faced routine that irks aplenty. At one point, she even merges her personalities, turning the refrain from 2 Live Crew's Me So Horny into a song about coital loyalty, I'll Be Lovin' U Long Time. Oof.
Strangely enough, it's a bunch of Norwegians who understand Mariah best. The Scandinavian production team of Stargate helms the album's two best songs. (FYI: They also produced Beyonce's Irreplaceable and Rihanna's Unfaithful.) On the '70s disco bumper I'm That Chick, with its not-so-subtle nod to Michael Jackson's Rock With You, Carey catches an old-school groove and gives a fun, booty-bouncing vocal. For better or worse, that one should boost her even closer to the Beatles' record.
Much as she did on Emancipation, Carey fares best on the ballads, which let her ditch the gangsta-moll routine and slow-build her vocals with churchly grace. The album closes with two slow, solemn keepers: the eulogistic Bye Bye, in which Carey buttons her blouse and pays respect to a loved one, and I Wish You Well, an inspirational song of forgiveness built via spare piano and gospel choir. It's quite lovely, actually.
So an otherwise dumb album ends with a curious twist: When she strips away the artifice, Carey sounds remarkably like Alicia Keys, like a mature singer who could blow up the Blue Note. And how about that? Could Carey's most artistically gratifying days actually be ahead of her? Ugh. I'll think about it tomorrow.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.