MOVE over Mariah, and tell Leona the news: the Ultimate Diva, the Diva to out-diva all other divas, is back with her first album of new material in seven years – seven eventful years in which the previously Unimpeachable Diva became the Erratic Diva. Dogged by rumours of drug and domestic abuse, Whitney Houston seemed to spend more time in rehab and court than she did making music.
As a result, the Whitney juggernaut was destabilised, but not derailed. There is no point being coy about it – in the realm of the Diva, personal travails can be turned into creative advantage. If Houston's imperious voice sounds a bit rougher these days, that's not the drugs – it's the emotional scars, right? For the purposes of I Look To You, Houston is now Damaged Diva. But, crucially, she made it through the rain, and you're going to hear all about it on her comeback album.
Her old mentor, Arista boss Clive Davis, is back on board as her executive producer, keeping a watchful eye on his volatile charge and putting his latest protg Alicia Keys on the case to write the first single. The refreshing Million Dollar Bill has Keys's natural soul stamp all over it. It begins with a springy bassline and handclaps before Houston's mellifluous vocal kicks in and all is right in an unforced disco soul throwback kind of way. Result: Whitney's got her groove back.
Nothin' But Love is a more contemporary-sounding mid-paced R&B number with a clubby backing, which artificially plays up to fan expectations of a little self-disclosure. It works for Britney, so why not Whitney? Houston (or her songwriters, acting as her proxy and giving the fans what they want to believe is a personal missive from the Untouchable Diva) assures us she has let go of all the emotional trauma, bygones are bygones, and now she "ain't got nothin' but love" for a whole bunch of folks: "My family that raised me, my teachers that done praised me, anyone who tried to hate on me, even the ones who tried to take me down." That Whitney, she's a saint of a woman…
The pseudo-biographical "revelations" continue on the title track. With a title like that, you can guess what lies ahead – an "inspirational" ballad for which she surely had to catfight Leona Lewis to gain custody. At least Houston can inject some guts into platitudes such as "after all that I've been through, who can I turn to?" Let me guess… the indefatigable "you". Who writes this bilge? R Kelly, apparently. Do you know what I look to, Mr Kelly? I look to the blessed day when I won't be banging my head against a wall because yet another X Factor Whitney wannabe is mauling this track with the aid of a wind machine, halo lighting effect and full gospel choir.
Kelly has another marginally more subtle stab at a survivor's ballad with the album's closing track, Salute, in which he casts Whitney as a "soldier girl". The lyrics are practically cryptic next to the thoroughly trite and cynical chest-beating power ballad I Didn't Know My Own Strength by Diane Warren, a songwriter with a suitcaseful of clichs at her disposal – she even rhymes "tumble" with "did not crumble".
But Whitney is wise to the whole self-referential game anyway: "I know somebody's going to make love to this song tonight," she pronounces on Worth It.
Although Ultimate Diva has no need of guest vocalists to bolster the commercial appeal of her comeback album, hip-hop star Akon was hanging about in reception, so they used him on one of the album's most banal tracks, Like I Never Left. Call You Tonight, for which Houston phones in her performance (boom, boom), also drifts by leaving no trail – there's something about feeling like she knows you from another life, you make her catch her breath, blah de blah, what could be the hollow promises of a lover, but we are hardly encouraged to care.
She also tackles Leon Russell's A Song For You. Now, that is a song, even if it has already been covered by the world and his dog. How to make Whitney's version stand out? What about letting her do her Diva thang for 90 seconds, then sticking a chintzy dancebeat under the rest of the track? Sabotage of a tender, vulnerable, beautiful song achieved. But, over the course of the album, something else is achieved: a robust comeback for a determined artist who sounds like she still has plenty to give.