Envy is the adversary of the fortunate.
- Epictetus, Phrygian Philosopher (50-138 A.D.)
Bret Easton Ellis is such a suprisingly talented writer – surprising in the fact that you never know where his talents are going to take the reader, or what sort of hidden abilities as a writer he may reveal. Who else would come up with the insane dichotomy of a character who dispassionately narrates scenes of him performing the most gruesome torture imaginable leading straight into scattered chapters where the very same narrator shows us an unbelievable amount of passion about . . . the music of the 80s. The scattered chapters are as good as the writing of any music review you’ve ever read, and if the character of Patrick Bateman wasn’t so busy with the murder and mayham or making so much money on Wall Street, he could have his pick of writing music reviews anywhere in the nation.
With the passing of Whitney Houston today, I couldn’t help but think of how Bret, er . . . Patrick Bateman spent a chapter speaking of Whitney back when she had just two albums under her belt:
Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including “The Greatest Love of All,” “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love for You,” plus it won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance by a female and two American Music Awards, one for best rhythm and blues single and another for best rhythm and blues video. She was also cited as best new artist of the year by Billboard and by Rolling Stone magazine. With all this hype one might expect the album to be an anticlimactic, lackluster affair, but the surprise is that Whitney Houston (Arista) is one of the warmest, most complex and altogether satisfying rhythm and blues records of the decade and Whitney herself has a voice that defies belief. From the elegant, beautiful photo of her on the cover of the album (in a gown by Giovanne De Maura) and its fairly sexy counterpart on the back (in a bathing suit by Norma Kamali) one knows that this isn’t going to be a blandly professional affair; the record is smooth but intense and Whitney’s voice leaps across so many boundaries and is so verssatile (though she’s mainly a jazz singer) that it’s hard to take in the album on a first listening. But you won’t want to. You’ll want to savor it over many.
It opens with “You Give Good Love” and “Thinking About You,” both produced and arranged by Kashif, and they emanate warm, lush jazz arrangements but with a contemporary synthesized beat and though they’re both really good songs, the album doesn’t get kicking until “Someone for Me” which was produced by Jermain Jackson, where Whitney sings longingly against a jazz-disco background and the difference between her longing and the sprightliness of the song is very moving. The ballad “Saving All My Love for You” is the sexiest, most romantic song on the record. It also has a killer saxophone solo by Tom Scott and one can hear the influences of sixties girl-group pop in it (it was cowritten by Gerry Goffin) but the sixties girl groups were never this emotional or sexy (or as well produced) as this song is. “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” is a glorious duet with Jermaine Jackson (who also produced it) and just one example of how sophisticated lyrically this album is. The last thing it suffers from is a paucity of decent lyrics which is what usually happens when a singer doesn’t write her own material and has to have her producer choose it. But Whitney and company have picked well here.
The dance single “How Will I Know” (my vote for best dance song of the 1980s) is a joyous ode to a girl’s nervousness about whether another guy is interested in her. It’s got a great keyboard riff and it’s the only track on the album produced by wunderkind producer Narada Michael Walden. My own personal favorite ballad (aside from “The Greatest Love of All” – her crowning achievement) is “All at Once” which is about how a young woman realizes all at once her lover is fading away from her and it’s accompanied by a gorgeous string arrangement. Even though nothing on the album sounds like filler, the only track that might come close is “Take Good Care of My Heart,” another duet with Jermaine Jackson. The problem is that it strays from the ablum’s jazz roots and seems too influenced by 1980s dance music.
But Whitney’s talent is restored with the overwhelming “The Greatest Love of All,” one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. From the first line (Michael Masser and Linda Creed are credited as the writers) to the last, it’s a state-of-the-art ballad about believing in yourself. It’s a powerful statement and one that Whitney sings with a grandeur that approaches the sublime. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late for us to better ourselves, to act kinder. Since it’s impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really, and it’s beautifully stated on this album.
Her second effort, Whitney (Arista; 1987), had four number one singles, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “So Emotional,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and was mostly produced by Narada Michael Walden and though it’s not as serious an effort as Whitney Houston it’s hardly a victim of Sophomore Slump. It stars off with the bouncy, danceable “I wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” which is in the same vein as the last album’s irrepressible “How Will I Know.” This is followed by the sensuous “Just the Lonely Talking Again” and it reflects the serious jazz influence that permeated the first album and one can also sense a newfound artistic maturity in Whitney’s voice – she did all the vocal arrangements on this album – and this is all very evident on “Love Will Save the Day” which is the most ambitious song Whitney’s yet performed. It was produced by Jellybean Benitez and it pulsates with an uptempo intensity and like most of the songs on this album it reflects a grownup’s awareness of the world we all live in. She sings and we believe it. This is quite a change from the softer, little-girl-lost image that was so appealing on the first album.
She projects an even more adult image on the Michael Masser-produced “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” a song about meeting up with a long-lost lover and letting him know your feelings about the past affair, and it’s Whitney at her most poetic. And as on most of the ballads there’s a gorgeous string arrangement. “So Emotional” is in the same vein as “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” but it’s even more rock-influenced and, like all the songs on Whitney, played by a terrific backup studio band with Marada on drum machine, Wolter Afanasieff on the synthesizer and synth bass, Corrado Rustici on synth guitar, and someone listed as Bongo Bob on percussion programming and drum sampling. “Where You Are” is the only song on the album produced by Kashif and it bears his indelible imprint of professionalism – it has a smooth, gleaming sound and sheen to it with a funky sax solo by Vincent Henry. It sounded like a hit single to me (but then all the songs on the album do) and I wondered why it wasn’t released as one.
“Love Is a Contact Sport” is the album’s real surprise – a big-sounding, bold, sexy number that, in terms of production, is the album’s centerpiece, and it has great lyrics along with a good beat. It’s one of my favorites. On “You’re Still My Man” you can hear how clearly Whitney’s voice is like an instrument – a flawless, warm machine that almost overpowers the sentiment of her music, but the lyrics and the melodies are too distinctive, too strong to let any singer, even one of Whitney’s caliber, overshadow them. “For the Love of You” shows off Narada’s brilliant drum programming capabilities and its jazzy modern feel harks back not only to purveyors of modern jazz like Michael Jackson and Sade but also to other artists, like Miles Davis, Paul Butterfield and Bobby McFerrin.
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is the album’s most powerful emotional statement of innocence lost and trying to regain the safety of childhood. Her voice is as lovely and controlled as it ever has been and it leads up to “I Know Him So Well,” the most moving moment on the record because it’s first and foremost a duet with her mother, Cissy. It’s a ballad about . . . who? – a lover shared? a long-lost father? – with a combination of longing, regret, determination and beauty that ends the album on a graceful, perfect note. We can expect new things from Whitney (she made a stunning gift to the 1988 Olympics with the ballad “One Moment in Time”) but even if we didn’t she would remain the most exciting and original black jazz voice of her generation.