200 sad songs

200 sad songs


I know what you’re thinking. Celine Dion songs belong only on hastily-assembled Mother’s Day compilations, purchased by those who don’t know their own mothers too well, or as the punchline to some joke people politely laugh at because it’s an easy reference point which equates to overblown warbling and safe platitudes. There is a very good 33 1/3 book written about Celine Dion’s ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ album; a treatise on the idea of plastic vs. real, good taste vs. bad, commerce vs. art. It’s clever and amusing, but quite removed – in itself almost an apology for existing, filled with disclaimers. This is not like that. There is nothing ironic here. This is a love letter.

Denying that Celine Dion has a magnificent voice is like denying climate change: there is empirical evidence, and history will show you to be on the wrong side. Sure, her voice doesn’t have to be your particular cup of French-Canadian tea, but it’s hard to argue with the sheer power it possesses. Strangely, some point to its purity as a sign of its disingenuity, but to my ears she is one of the rawest and real talents when it comes to wringing emotion out of an otherwise ho-hum lyric. Her voice breaks, it falters, it soars and crashes, and she can do a spot-on Barry Gibb when she wishes. It’s quite an instrument.

‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’ is everything people (think they) dislike about her, amped up to 11. It’s overwrought, it’s too long for radio, it treats love as a humanist tragedy on par with SARS, it’s sweeping and dramatic and dark, it’s obsessive to a point, it’s inspired in part by Wuthering Heights, and can easily be taken either deadly serious or laughed out of the antique castle in which in sits, practicing scales. It’s also her best song.

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Through all the drama, the Meat Loaf-level theatrics, and the impossible notes she holds (deny the power of the “nights of endless pleasure” part, I dare ya), the most striking thing about Celine Dion’s ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’ is a single line, tucked away in a pre-chorus: “And I made myself so strong again, somehow.” Whether it was time or a shift in attitude, the “somehow” makes it seem not entirely of her own volition. It’s like she is groggily peering back at the wreckage of their lost love as if it’s a tangled truck burnt out and warped with the heat on the highway – hardly able to believe she was able to pull herself out of it and with scant recollection of how or when she did it.

This is a tortured, obsessed love Dion sings about. She claims to have “banished every memory you and I had ever made”, but the chorus belies her true, deep feelings – it only takes a touch for it all to come flooding back. The love affair detailed was a rocky one – a tangle of sex and cruelty. She isn’t distancing herself from blame, either; the line, “Whenever you tried to hurt me, I just hurt you even worse, and so much deeper” is a cold truth – unfortunate and real.

The song was written and produced by Jim Steinman, the guy who steered Meat Loaf’s epic ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ record, and its sequel. On his website he explains he was trying to write the “most passionate, romantic song I could ever write.” Then he gets real dark and weird, adding, “This song is an erotic motorcycle. It’s like Heathcliffe digging up Kathy’s corpse and dancing with it in the cold moonlight. You can’t get more extreme, operatic or passionate than that.”

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Daintily skipping over the fact he seems to equate eroticism with motorcycles a lot (he literally opened ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’ with a five-minute motorcycle intro), Steinman goes on to capture why ‘It’s All Coming Back’ seems so darkly devastating. “I was trying to write a song about being enslaved and obsessed by love, not just enchanted and happy with it. It was about the dark side of love and about the extraordinary ability to be resurrected by it once dead.”

This explanation contradicts itself somewhat – the song isn’t about a resurrection, but rather a sudden awakening from some deep recess you didn’t even know was occupied. Even when you think you are over someone – that it was dead long ago, that you can barely recall, someone who was “history with the slamming of the door” – sometimes all it takes is a single touch from the past to bring it all coming back. It’s not within our control, and that’s beautiful, and magical, but it’s also extremely fucked up when it hits. Things should be allowed to pass, but unfortunately that’s not our choice. Celine knows. Jim knows. Maybe you know, too.

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