Céline Dion Returns Resilient and Resplendent With ‘Courage’
Céline Dion is among the top ten best-selling female artists of all time, a singer of the absolute highest ranks, one whose every performance is virtually flawless. She has exhibited a peerless commitment to craft throughout her career, spanning nearly four decades, and she’s the type of performer that inspires aspiring female singers worldwide. Dion hit hard times when 2016 saw the death of both her husband and previous manager Rene Angélilm and her brother Daniel, but her 2018 song “Ashes” suggested she was on her road to recovery, with its refrain, “Let beauty come out of ashes.” Now, Dion makes her grand return, releasing her first English-language album in six years, “Courage.” Enlisting a team of star songwriters, among them artists like Sia, Sam Smith, and David Guetta, she traverses disparate styles while showcasing all the theatrical excess and vocal virtuosity that she’s known for, and finding a silver lining in the face of adversity.
Opener “Flying On My Own” is Céline Dion doing EDM, and we’re talking of the most garish, farcical variety — fist bumping club fare with aggressive sidechain compression and howling diva vocals. And who better for the job? Dion has always been able to soar and shatter lamps, and that’s precisely what’s needed here. Say whatever you will about the song, but she couldn’t be more on point, getting the album off to a high energy start. The next track, “Lovers Never Die,” has been written in the style of Amy Winehuse, a sound hardly associated with Dion. One of the record’s most pleasant surprises is how well she pulls it off. She alters her inflections to adopt a more soulful style, and sings with plenty of nuance, but stays arm’s length away from blatant mimicry, pronouncing “Lovers” in a severely idiosyncratic way, and making the song her own as it goes along.
After the first couple restless explorations, Dion settles into her usual niche with the Skylar Grey-written “Falling In Love Again.” a piano and vocal tearjerker that lets her shine as a singer. This is the type of song seemingly designed for the likes of American Idol auditions, with a chorus that finds Dion bleating into the stratosphere, unhinged, and making a serious impact. The same goes with the Adele-esque “Lying Down,” with Sia and David Guetta among its composers, its sweeping, larger-than-life chorus even outdoing that of its predecessor. Come the title track, we have plummeted headlong into the abyss, and it’s “My Heart WIll Go On” all over again. You knew it was coming, and at least there was a buildup with considerate, distracting detours. People who balk and jeer at Dion have songs like this in mind. The primary outrage is the simplicity of the tune and lyrics — drama with no grounding, a mass showcase of hot air. Then again, if anyone could somewhat save climactic chorus lines of “Cause it’s not easy / When you’re not with me” from their blandness, it would be Dion, as they actually ring true to her life. When you take the song in context, its triteness actually becomes winsome, as it suggests a purity of sentiment that precludes the need for any pretension.
As if acknowledging their egregious offenses, the songwriters follow up with a track called “Imperfections,” featuring the refrain “Ya, I got my own imperfections.” Indeed we know, although they also deserve much credit for how they effortlessly traverse styles, enabling Dion to show her remarkable versatility. This time, the song takes the form of an easy pop tune with finger snaps and a catchy chorus, a welcome break from all the drama. “Change My Mind,” another groove-based track, follows suit naturally, and veers back into histrionic fare, although this time the songwriting is just right — streamlined and straightforward without descending into cringe-inducing silliness. It’s an infectious track, made extra enjoyable if you try and visualize the type of facial contortions that Dion must be making during the chorus. The song was co-written by LP as well as Björn Yttling, who’s written for the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Primal Scream.
Quite predictably, it’s then back to the saccharine, with “Say Yes,” an uplifting song held back only by the limits of lyrics like “You gotta let your feelings show / Stop saying no no no.” Next, Dion’s voice suddenly shifts gears radically, going from shielding a sob to exuding attitude, on “Nobody’s Watching. The opening lines, “I’ve had it up to here up to my neck / With everything politically correct,” effectively compensate for any outdated sounds on the album, and make it all as up to date as possible. Hats off to Dion. It’s a moment of revelation to learn what fuels all her impassioned outpourings. She continues, “Gonna lay it all out on my hairbrush microphone,” an adorable image, as one can only imagine how much time the young Dion spent engaged in this practice to get where she is. Next comes “The Case,” an anachronism that would fit perfectly with Dion’s many inexcusably ‘90s album covers. Dion even gets all nasal in her chorus, as singers only did in that, say, special era. Having been moderated by the previous track, it’s a delightful diversion, showing Dion lighter and more lighthearted.
Next comes “For the Lover That I Lost,” co-written by Sam Smith, expressing a sentient impossible not to empathize with. Dion sings from the heart, and keeps her head up, reflecting, “All the memories feel like magic / All of the fighting seems so sweet,” and you have to admire her resilience. While the album began seeming anything but cohesive, the tracklist is, at this point, adeptly sequenced, with easy numbers scattered about, to take off the edge of the more incisive tracks. “Baby” is another instantly catchy tune, providing relief in the same way as “Change My Mind,” allowing a pause for the listener to strengthen resolve for the emotional weight of the subsequent track, “I Will Be Stronger,” a reiteration of “Courage.” Instead of wallowing in despair, Dion keeps her head up, singing, “And I have missed you, so heavily / But the weight’s kind of lifting / I’m seeing colours in the street.”
“How Did You Get Here” is a return to the stylings of “Lovers Never Die,” taking inspiration from Motown. It strikes a balance between the catchiness of the album’s lighter tracks and the theatrics of its heftier moments, with a stellar performance from Dion, set to classic, evocative sounds. “Look At Us Now” is a throwback to late ‘80s / early ‘90s pop with a soulful bent. It’s an extension of the previous song in both its balance of punch and poignancy, and its lyrical themes of awestruck appreciation. Finally comes the epic closer “Goodnight Baby.” At first, it might seem like another Titanic-style sentimental indulgence, but upon closer look, it’s actually something of the opposite. Dion sings, “This shit is perfect, each second worth it / Let’s save this love before we go and hurt it,” and it’s quite bizarre hearing Dion curse. This simple gesture, however, reframes the entire song, as if to clarify the tone she takes on her last note — cool and comfortable.
“Courage” will surely be a treat to fans of Céline Dion, which itself makes it a success, considering her staggering number of fans worldwide. After six years of anticipation, the sixteen-song album more than delivers. Everything that Dion has made her name by is on display, as powerful as ever, if not more so. Moreover, the new album shows Dion stepping well outside her narrow niche, taking on varied styles, and pulling them all off swimmingly with her extraordinarily versatile skill set. Of course, Dion’s brand of stadium pop histrionics is not for everyone. Yet, even those who consider this type of music anathema will likely find something to enjoy in this album. After all, Dion never claimed to be some novel artistic visionary. She’s simply a singer, and as such, she could hardly be better. It’s heartwarming and inspirational to hear her confronting tragedy head-on, and emerging resilient and resplendent.
“Courage” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.