Monday, Sept. 21, 2009

Mariah Carey's Nearly Perfect Imperfect Memoirs

By Evan Rytlewski
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After a frequently exceptional run, Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel closes with a flagrant vote of no-confidence in everything that came before it; a radio-baiting cover of the Foreigner power-balled “I Want to Know What Love Is” was apparently tacked on in a panic after the slow start of the album’s lead single, “Obsessed.” Of course, Carey hits the cover out of the park, but the victory is cheap and suspense-free, akin to Tiger Woods putting a perfect game on a miniature golf course. It’s a pandering end to a record that otherwise eschews the proven schmaltz Carey sometimes uses as a crutch.

Carey and her label should have had more faith in what she created here. The bulk of Memoirs brilliantly pairs the singer with songwriting partner The-Dream and his producer of choice, Tricky Stewart, a duo that’s crafted some of the decade’s biggest pop hits for divas like Rihanna and Beyonce. Their glorious stamp is all over this record, and The-Dream in particular spins gold. His nimble phrasing and knack for spinning innocuous vocal ticks into marvelous hooks is well documented, but less celebrated is his sharp lyricism, which in the spirit of an angry, young Elvis Costello, juxtaposes understated puns with vicious sentiment. The-Dream has Carey quip her way through “Obsessed,” rattling off a string of put-downs, but tracks later, on “Standing O,” makes her go for the emotional kill: “I gave you my heart and all you did was pound on it.” That track, like most of the album, is stripped of all dead weight to just a buoyant, percussive beat, all popping pianos and finger snaps.

Memoirs is Carey at her most incisive and memorable, and the record only loses steam in its final act, when The-Dream clocks out for the day, leaving Carey behind to break the handkerchief and sing about angels and cover Foreigner. After an album so smartly written and expertly executed, though, it’s easy enough to forgive her hedge-betting indulgences. Maybe the record should have been titled Memoirs of an Insecure Angel.

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