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Caution (Sony)

Well, no, I didn’t expect to be here either.

The Carey oeuvre was marked for me, seemingly for good, at the height of her octave-and-chart scaling ‘90s dominance. That was the time when she may or may not have said “I don’t do stairs”, but the truth didn’t matter as it seemed both in keeping with a public profile that was almost certainly unfair (but brutally funny), and in a sense regally appropriate for a pop singer who crushed competition like she crushed notes.

Carey’s forays into “meaningful” as well as meaningless albums and projects in recent times, including those sometimes farcical hypersexualised presentations, has not enticed me particularly, though efforts of writers such as Cyclone Wehner to position the American singer nearer the centre (of influence) of contemporary trends in R&B and pop – those two being the same thing really for two decades now - has been intriguing.

Coming from that sceptical/not overly knowledgeable side of the Carey-proof fence, what strikes me about Caution is less its near total elimination of that melismatic singing style which launched a thousand Idol/Voice/Got Talent auditions, but rather its subtler deployment of emotion and intellect, sensuality and sexuality.

Mind you, maybe those elements are related. The absence of an urge to dominate, to centre the voice and the experience, in every song, allows rooms for shadings of feeling as well as shadings of sounds. And no longer having the complete range and force of the glory years also makes alternative routes attractive for the mature singer, and usually the mature fan.

On this album, her 15th I believe, that means tempered beats, a slowly laid out delivery that lets its flourishes sidle up and surprise rather than punch in advance, and connections between the whispered R&B that existed around – but separate from - Carey in the ‘90s and something like Drake and Beyonce’s Mine. Or indeed half the ‘90s-influenced work of Weeknd.

Some of the best examples here, such as 8th Grade, find Carey’s phrasing elevating an already engaging piece of music into something rhythmically appealing; or, in Giving Me A Life (where Slick Rick and Blood Orange are key contributors), touching up a laidback song with what can only be described as a strong Michael Jackson feel. That goes somewhere fresh again at other times, for example A No No, where the lightness of her touch puts you in mind of peak TLC.

Caution is split between the dominant wry kiss-off/angry kiss-off /dismissive kiss-off, portion, and the smaller hurting heart/crushed soul secondary component, of which Portrait (another strongly Jackson-like track) may be the best, in part because it has all the potential for excess but Carey refrains.

Curiously, impressively you’d have to say, the line between the post-breakup moods is not immediately discernible from tone, rhythm or delivery. That means you have to actually listen, not just hear, to grasp meaning.

It’s an effort I wasn’t expecting to make with a Mariah Carey album, but then I am genuinely shocked to find the rewards of listening worth that effort.

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