Some artists captivate us with their unique persona, their distinctive essence — your Bob Dylans, your Madonnas. Others succeed precisely because they don't forcibly project their own personality into their music, thereby letting us fill the songs with our own hopes and fears. It's hard to think of someone who has ruled that latter category more thoroughly in the last two decades than Mariah Carey, which makes the name of her most recent album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, a little misleading. Are these her memoirs? Or do they really belong to her many fans who unquestionably choose to see themselves in her expertly anonymous songs?
A few months shy of her 40th birthday, Carey should be in that awkward phase of her career: She's no longer the new, hot, young pop singer, but she's also not ready to settle into aging-industry-icon status either, where bland new albums are put out merely as a way to make sure the audience catches the greatest-hits oldies tour. Indeed, Memoirs finds her once again teaming up with hotshot R&B and pop producers (most notably The-Dream and Tricky Stewart), hungry for more hits and delivering them. Never once does she seem winded trying to keep up with the trendsetters: Whether it's the taunting "Obsessed," the impossibly silky ballad "H.A.T.E.U.," or the vaguely electro-pop "Ribbon," Carey always sounds like herself, which is to say she's all beautiful voice and zero persona. Early in her career, that strategy seemed deeply limited. But in retrospect, it's allowed her fluidity to morph from torch-song singer to R&B cutie without breaking a sweat. As proof of her dexterity, on Memoirs she even gets away with covering "I Want to Know What Love Is" — and actually convinces the listener that they've probably never heard a better version.
Mariah Carey plays Monday, Jan. 25, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-6611.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].