Review Summary: It's just a sweet sweet fantasy, baby...
Many incredible albums have been conceived out of their artists' darkest hours. It certainly makes sense, as channeling negativity and strife into art has been a common occurrence for ages; in the realm of popular music, many examples immediately come to mind. Rumours
by Fleetwood Mac, often cited as their best record, came at a time in which 4 out of the 5 members were going through both a divorce and a breakup... all happening within
the band itself! Then there's the Smashing Pumpkins classic Siamese Dream
. Billy Corgan was going through writer's block and weight issues, Jimmy Chamberlain's heroin addiction was getting increasingly deadly, and James Iha and D'arcy Wretzsky just broke up around that point. Going back to my original point, however, the beauty about these dark times is that they can offer additional inspiration to work with. The music often comes off as more down-to-earth and relatable too, which is especially true about the aforementioned albums. As for Mariah Carey, while Daydream
wasn't quite her darkest time (that would be Glitter
), it would probably be one of them.
Keep in mind that, at the point Daydream
was being made, Mariah had only seen fame for her music. Her debut instantly shot her into the spotlight, something that only continued with her next few records; but then the "Fantasy" remix happened. Seeing as how she was mostly recognized as an R&B and soul-influenced pop singer, collaborating with rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard sent some very questionable vibes with both Columbia Records and the public. Combine the urban change in direction with an ugly breakup with Sony Records executive Tommy Mottola and leaving empty-handed and thus visibly upset at that year's Grammys, and... ouch. But retrospectively, Daydream
is often considered Carey's best and career-defining work despite these events; I, for one, completely agree. The whole package is incredibly appealing, but consistency and songwriting are the order of the day here. This is the first album that Mariah Carey took over most of the songwriting on, and the music is very lovingly crafted as a result; of course Carey's phenomenal voice is what's focused on the most (as it should), but this is the first record of hers in which the compositions were really matching the high standards of her vocal work.
As for instrumentation, it's all very lushly arranged and heavily steeped in soul and jazz-based arrangements. While ballads rule the tracklist here, there's certainly no shortage of variety presented in each number. You might be in the mood for an upbeat R&B tune with a bouncy beat and flashy vocal gymnastics, and the smash hits "Fantasy" and "Always Be My Baby" will fit that bill. Or perhaps you're looking for something subdued and soulful? Check out the Michael Jackson-esque ballad "Underneath the Stars" or the melancholic and musically stark closer "Looking In." The latter even has a subtle classical guitar arrangement that compliments the other instruments beautifully. The album never quite loses focus, though, and it all still revolves around the power and range of Carey's voice. Case in point: the amazing multitracked harmonies. Take the gospel-tinged highlight "I Am Free" for instance; the first verse is very straightforward as Mariah sings her way through, but the way her second vocal track enters the second verse is just ingenious. It colors the piece just enough to make a distinct impression without being too abrasive, subtly joining Mariah's main vocal track, showing how masterful she truly is at her craft. Then there are songs like "Underneath the Stars" and the Boyz II Men collaboration "One Sweet Day," which feature way too many harmonized voices to count.
Then again, when Mariah really starts belting and showing her chops, that's when the magic really happens. Both "Fantasy" and its underrated "Daydream Interlude" remix include her trademark whistle register, and it's stunning how much power she has when singing such high notes in the process. Her entire five-octave range is put to amazing use here, and while some may end up tired of her vocal runs (otherwise known as melisma), they're smooth and passionate enough to appreciate on both an aesthetic and technical level. "One Sweet Day" is basically a giant showcase for Mariah's vocal arsenal, ranging from mid-range crooning and wispy falsetto to intense belting and complex harmonies; while Boyz II Men have a great performance collectively on the track, they still can't compare to her singing at the end of the day. Sadly, there's one song that just doesn't cut it here, regardless of Mariah's vocals: the cover of Journey's "Open Arms." It's not a terrible cover, but taking out the rock instrumentation and adding more gospel and R&B didn't really do the song any favors. The music sounds very tired and plodding, and Mariah's singing is very overdramatic compared to the magic Jonathan Cain and Steve Perry created on the original. There's just not enough variety in the vocals, and there aren't enough differences in the composition to set it apart from the Journey version. It's sad too, because it was Mariah's own choice to include it on the album; in the end, it got justly panned upon release.
Finally, I wanted to bring up the lyrics, as they represent a huge step forward for Mariah's work. It's clear that a lot of it was inspired by her relationship with Tommy Mottola; this is especially evident on "Always Be My Baby," in which she says a certain ex-lover will always be a part of her despite the two splitting apart. Her lyricism became more mature in general, however, and while it's usually love-based, it seems as though more passion and effort was involved here than in past efforts. For instance, here's a stanza from "When I Saw You":
"Soft heavenly eyes gazed into me
Transcending space and time
And I was rendered still
There were no words for me to find at all
As I stood there beside myself
I could see you and no one else"
And here's a section from "Looking In":
"She smiles through a thousand tears
And harbors adolescent fears
She dreams of all
That she can never be
She wades in insecurity
And hides herself inside of me
Don't say she takes it all for granted
I'm well aware of all I have
Don't think that I am disenchanted
The darker moments of her life at the time probably influenced a lot of the record, because there's a pretty downbeat feel to the music from time to time. "One Sweet Day" and "Looking In" definitely come to mind, although the former was apparently inspired by sufferers of the AIDS epidemic at the time. Either way, the point is that Mariah's lyrics had evolved considerably along with her music.
In any case, Daydream
is an absolute classic of 90s R&B and pop music. Mariah was at her prime vocally, the songwriting is diverse and complementary to the stunning singing, and the experience is soulful and elegant while being consistently engaging. Mariah Carey might have been going through tough times during and after the recording of Daydream
, but this is one hell of a great piece of music to come from it all.