With a voice that could stop a truck, a husband (Sony Records chief Tommy Mottola) who runs the store and only the hottest songwriting and producing collaborators going (Walter Afanasieff, C+C Music Factory and Babyface), Mariah Carey is the closest thing to a sure bet in pop music right now. And at 23, she has years to go before having to face a generation gap in taste.
Every song on Music Box, an album dominated by huge soaring ballads, has been written and arranged as a potential home run: Imagine an album containing four or five cuts with the commercial aspirations of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." One of the likeliest contenders is a remake of Harry Nilsson's 1972 chart topper, "Without You," in which Carey dips into her lower register and is accompanied by backup singers (including herself) magnified to sound like a mighty gospel chorus.
Carey's singing has undergone some subtle but strategic stylistic shifts. The success of last year's Unplugged EP, with its hit remake of the Jackson Five ballad "I'll Be There," has encouraged her to try to sound a little more like a wailing street kid and a little less like Houston. The effect is liberating.
Some of the songs appear to be strongly influenced by other hits. "Hero," with its message of self-sufficiency, aims for the inspirational grandeur of "Greatest Love of All," while "Just to Hold You Once Again" and "All I've Ever Wanted" chase the tail of "I Will Always Love You." If the album has a weakness, it lies in Carey's lyrics, which are made up entirely of pop and soul clichés.
Music Box would be an exercise in bombast if Carey didn't infuse these greeting-card sentiments with a sustained passion that enhances the record's wedding-album feel. Her singing, trimmed of some of the frills that seemed gratuitous in the past, measures up to the forever-and-a-day sentiments and their glittering, gift-wrapped surroundings. In fact, Music Box is so precisely calculated to be a blockbuster that its impact is ultimately a little unnerving.