Céline Dion has reigned as the queen of pop bombast for the last thirty years, barreling through sky-high walls of emotion with her Mack truck of voice and delightfully over-the-top stage presence. It made her a target for ridicule from critics for far too long, but Dion never seemed to care much, beating her chest and belting her way into the record books with multi-platinum albums and iconic, award-winning songs (fun fact: she’s recorded no less than three Oscar-nominated songs).
The recent, much-deserved reappraisal and appreciation of Dion as a cultural figure comes after a period of terrible tragedy for the Canadian songbird. She lost her husband and manager Rene Angelil to cancer in 2016, and her brother only two days after from cancer as well. Despite her personal losses, Dion has soldiered on, bravely continuing and completing her legendary run on Las Vegas and remaking herself into a high-fashion goddess traipsing across Paris during Fashion Week. Booked and busy as she’s been, Dion hasn’t fully addressed her tragedies in the way we’ve come to expect from her: through song. It’s morbid, but there’s at least a bit of curiosity in seeing how one of the most emotive voices in music history would process her own grief and recovery, or if she would even want to. Doing that would take some serious courage.
Ever the showwoman, Dion returns to the English pop scene after six years (her last album was 2016’s French-language Encore un soir) with the aptly-titled Courage. To tide fans over until its November 15th release, she’s released three new singles: “Lying Down”, “Imperfections”, and the title track. It’s a surprisingly modern move in this fast-moving music industry, where pop stars burn through singles within days, but the goal here isn’t to keep up. This sampling instead serves as a gut check of sorts, a glimpse into how the singer is doing as she navigates this phase of her life and career on her own.
If there was any doubt of Dion’s resilience, “Lying Down” quickly throws down the gauntlet. Written by Sia, the anthemic ballad is all empowerment and self-esteem, with sweeping production (surprisingly provided by David Guetta) that recalls Dion’s classic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”. Dion doesn’t reach that song’s melodramatic heights, but she is in very fine form, with a full-throated performance that showcases her enviable range at 50, while restrained enough to communicate her fierce refusal to be subsumed by someone, or something’s, efforts to silence her. “Lying Down” is a great first single, but it’s fairly table stakes for Dion. She doesn’t have anything to prove, but 2013’s Loved Me Back to Life offered the tantalizing suggestion of the singer moving beyond her adult contemporary wheelhouse to work with her fresher sounds and producers.
That promise is better fulfilled by the two remaining singles, which also delve deeper into where Dion is today. With only a piano and some strings, “Courage” might be the most minimalist track of her career. It’s a devastatingly beautiful arrangement accompanying an emotional wallop of a vocal from Dion, who sings with aching tenderness about the residual grief that threaten to overwhelm her, and her search for strength to keep going. Dion has never sounded more vulnerable, and her efforts have produced a remarkable, career-best performance. And yet, the most revelatory track of the trio is “Imperfections”, a mid-tempo written by Ari Leff and DallasK, who have written for Fifth Harmony and Cheat Codes. Much like Max Martin did with “That’s the Way It Is”, they construct an elegant, modern soundscape for Dion to explore the possibilities of a new relationship. Dion underplays it beautifully here, conveying warmth and a mature sensuality as she sings about her insecurities about fully moving onto a new love over a shimmering tropical production. The song is coy about what those are, but the delight of Dion’s collaboration with these hitmakers makes up for the lack of specificity. If pop radio and streaming playlists were slightly less ageist, “Imperfections” would be her first bonafide hit in ten years.
Together, these three songs form a compelling portrait of a woman still processing her losses, but who is cautiously optimistic about her future. No one would blame Céline Dion for keeping these emotions close to the vest, but her willingness to open up appears to be yielding some of the emotionally satisfying work of her career. Her ability to revitalize her professional career in the wake of deep personal pain is remarkable, and deserving of the immense respect she’s been robbed of until recently. Here’s to hoping that, by the time November comes around, the public will meet and celebrate Dion’s “courage”.