(Entertainment Weekly) -- Pop stardom has its privileges.
Whitney Houston has credited mentor Clive Davis, right, for her comeback after a seven-year absence.
Unlike schoolteachers and tax accountants, creative types with personal demons are often able to take what doesn't kill them and emerge not only stronger, but with a new sort of depth and pathos -- and often, a wider audience for the pain they turn into art.
"I Look to You," Whitney Houston's first album in seven years, doesn't pretend to offer the unblemished 21-year-old we met on her smash 1985 debut, but it never truly lets listeners inside the heart and head of the woman she is today.
A number of tracks obliquely reference her well-documented dark times, from the midtempo club jam "Nothin' but Love" ("I could hold on to pain but that ain't what my life's about/ I ain't blaming nobody if I don't have my stuff worked out") to the soaring, shamelessly schmaltzy title track ("every road that I've taken/Led to my regret").
Houston's famous voice, which now sounds husky and glottal, as if her vocal cords were sent through a washer-dryer cycle with a handful of small rocks, brings a gravity that the album's often generically worded ballads lack.
Still, she seems relieved to turn to lighter stuff, like the saucy-sweet Alicia Keys collaboration "Million Dollar Bill" and airy Akon duet "Like I Never Left."
On the album's thumping coda, "Salute," Houston refers to herself as a "soldier girl" ("I took the fall, now I stand tall"), but listeners may feel shut out of the fight.
Whatever hardship she's endured, the battles within remain a mystery.
EW Grade: B-
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