I like to think that I’m above quoting press releases, but my personal idol Bruce Spingsteen indicated that Dion is the connection between Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n’ roll. This is pretty accurate. Dion and the Belmonts were able to take the crooning and doo wop associated with the likes of Eddie Fisher and Sinatra and add a bit of Buddy Holly flair in terms of musicianship.
To this day, Dion’s best remembered as the man who sang “Runaround Sue” and “Teenager in Love,” but it’s important not to forget his retooling in the late ’60s as a more mature artist that reinforced his talent. (There was also that born-again Christian phase he went through, but we’re not here to talk about that.) In between was the folk phase required of pretty much any artist in the ’60s; in summation, Dion is a versatile guy who’s conquered a lot of musical ground.
Dion’s most recent reinvention has seen him try to become a blues singer, and to put it generously, it’s an awkward fit. To put it less generously, it’s something he needs to stop doing before he embarrasses himself further. His new album, New York is My Home, suffers from three fundamental problems: the songs are too long, precious little of the album has anything to do with New York, and I don’t buy anything he’s saying.
In “Can’t Go Back to Memphis,” Dion spends four-and-a-half minutes singing a blues song where he tries to convince us that he was an outlaw in Memphis where “all the po-lice know my name.” It doesn’t work, and the absurdity of him trying to claim this is driven home by “New York is My Home” as the next song on the album. “New York is My Home” is an album highlight, a solid duet with Paul Simon about their home city, that worked as a single but feels like a square peg in this album. In “Gangster of Love,” he tries to perform a bad-boy love song where he anoints himself the titular gangster who drives a Caddy and “puts away his rivals — rat tat tat,” at which point he stops sounding like a pop icon and more like a vice principal who shoehorned himself into a high-school talent show.
Most songs on this album range between three and a half to four minutes, and it can be difficult — almost awkward — to sit through each song.
Reinvention is important in any artistic medium. Taking risks is necessary. It’s why Tom Waits was able to become something other than a wannabe lounge singer, and what made David Bowie, well, David Bowie. It’s been genuinely happening with Lady Gaga over the past year or so as well. Doing the same thing over and over again gets tiresome, and precious few people can get away with it. But if the audience can’t buy it, it’s all for naught. White Blues Singer is a tricky part to fill, and it’s done most successfully by people who staked it out early, such as Eric Clapton. Maybe it’s because we know too much about Dion, but him — an established singer in his mid 70s — as a blues singer just doesn’t connect the way his work in other musical arenas has in the past. There’s an argument to be made that’s he’s always sung the blues on some level, but lyrical content doesn’t translate to brand new genres.
On a technical level, everything is excellent. The musicianship is top notch, the production is consistent, and Dion’s vocals are still pretty solid for a man in his mid 70s. There’s no lack of emotion nor effort, and I don’t want to give the impression for one second that anyone is phoning it in on this album. The album is produced in part by Jimmy Vivino, best known as Conan O’Brien’s band leader, and he does a phenomenal job. Everything sounds great and sounds right, but that still doesn’t fix the main problem of believability, or in this case, the quintessential suspension of belief. Dion’s still a talented guy. It’s great that he’s still making music. He just needs to find a persona that better suits him.
Get Dion’s New York is My Home on Amazon.
(Cover photo via houstonpress.com)