Album Review: Céline Dion’s ‘Courage’ Is An Eclectic Triumph

Mike Wass | November 12, 2019 2:54 pm
Céline's 'Imperfections' Video
Céline Dion peels back the layers in her arty, black-and-white 'Imperfections' video.

Céline Dion has been slowly chipping away at her 12th English-language album since at least 2016. That year is significant as it marked the passing of her late husband, René Angélil, after a long battle with cancer. The songs that arrived immediately thereafter (“The Show Must Go On” and “Recovering”) directly referenced that event, and the music she has been working on ever since is indelibly shaped by it. However, something miraculous happened along the way. The 51-year-old started to see light at the end of tunnel.

Courage, the follow up to 2013’s Loved Me Back To Life, documents Céline’s emotional journey. The title refers to both the strength needed to keep on going in the face of tragedy and the bravery needed to try new things. And try new things she has. As expected, ballads dominate Courage, but there is also a club banger, splashes of country, electronic flourishes, a gospel-tinged moment and an old-fashioned soul song. The fact that Céline’s most eclectic album arrives at this stage in her career is truly remarkable.

While the production and cavalcade of collaborators on Courage are quirky and inventive, the subject matter couldn’t be more traditional. As she has so often in her career, Céline examines matters of the heart. Only this time around, she handpicks songs that cut closer to the bone than ever before. Common themes are loss, rebirth and learning to love again. It speaks to Céline’s skill as a curator and interpreter of lyrics that each and every song feels like her, whether she is singing over club beats or accompanied by an orchestra.

01. Flying On My Own

Yes, Courage begins with the song Céline introduced by taking a ride with drag queens. With club beats straight out of 2001, “Flying On My Own” is the most forgettable track on the album. But if you pay attention to the lyrics, it’s clear why the legendary diva decided to launch her era with it. “There’s something shifting in the air, if I’m not mistaken,” the Canadian superstar sings. “The dust is clearing everywhere, memories awaken.” Beneath that Cher circa Believe production is an important message about rebirth. “My feet on the runway, it’s a beautiful day,” she belts. “I look to the sky now, I’m finding my way.”

02. Lovers Never Die

Co-penned by Johan Carlsson, Ross Golan and Dan Wilson, “Lovers Never Die” is a true oddity. In that it’s an alt-leaning (at least production-wise), mid-tempo torch song about falling hard that showcases the full range of Céline’s voice from whisper to roar. “I trust too easily and trusted you’d treat me well, I faced the truth by facing you and asking for help,” she purrs. “You played the gentleman but there’s no gentle in this, it’s obvious you’re full of it.” This is the feistiest the legendary diva has sounded since “Think Twice.” Only this soaring number owes more to Kurt Weill than the AC-pop of that ’90s hit.

03. Falling In Love Again

Skylar Grey penned this ballad with her fiancé after reading an article about Céline getting back in the dating game. After several attempts, “Falling In Love Again” popped into her head, and it’s almost as if she directly channeled the great Canadian. “When the sun went down on that day, I never thought that love would come back to me,” Céline sings over stripped-back production. “When I closed my eyes and tried to dream, darkness was the only thing I could see.” However, the light slowly started trickling back in. “I can’t believe I’m falling in love but I am,” the hitmaker admits quietly. “I never thought that I would be strong enough to move on, no this wasn’t part of the plan.” This is one of the best cuts on the album.

04. Lying Down

The dream team of David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort and Sia came together to create “Lying Down.” Of the album’s three lead singles, this is arguably the least engaging. It’s not as innovative as “Imperfections” or as affecting as “Courage.” However, if you’re looking for a power ballad with an unexpected electro twist, this is the song for you. Not only that, but “Lying Down” is an act of defiance. It’s about pulling yourself together and moving forward even though every molecule of your being wants to throw in the towel. For that, if no other reason, it earns its spot on the album.

05. Courage

The heartbreaking title track feels like a private conversation between Céline and her late husband. It’s genuinely touching, beautifully produced (by Stephan Moccio) and relatable to anyone who has experienced loss. “I would be lying if I said I’m fine, I think of you at least a hundred times,” the great diva sings over a simple piano arrangement. “Cause in the echo of my voice I hear your words, just like you’re there.” Happily, Céline finds something approaching hope on the chorus. “Courage don’t you dare fail me now, I need you to keep away the doubts,” she sings. “I’m staring in the face of something new.” This is a true standout that stands toe-to-toe with any ballad in Ms. Dion’s discography.

06. Imperfections

Now, this was a curveball. Co-written by LAUV and produced by DallasK, “Imperfections” would probably be lodged in Spotify’s Top Hits playlist if it was attributed to anyone else. While it might be a little too 2019 for the faithful, it stands out as one of Céline’s best mid-tempo moments. It’s also something of an outlier subject-wise. Instead of looking for love or dealing with the fallout from losing it, this is about self-reflection and healing.

07. Change My Mind

Céline flips the script (again) on this mid-tempo gem co-written by Björn Yttling (from Peter Bjorn and John) and LP. It’s another track that leans a little more alt than we’re used to, but still has a whiff of “My heart Will Go On” — actually, maybe it’s just the nautical theme that reminds me of Titanic. “We were bold, we were dust, we were energy, we were more in the light than we’d ever be,” our Queen sings mysteriously. “Effortless dancing with symmetry and the memories, more or less killing me.” The enjoyably obtuse lyrics border on mystical, but it all comes together on the majestic chorus. “Change my mind, make me drunk on you again,” Céline belts dramatically. “Turn back time, don’t you wonder where I’ve been.”

08. Say Yes

Produced by Jörgen Elofsson (the man behind “Flying On My Own”), “Say Yes” is an achingly lovely ballad. Put simply, it’s an inner dialogue about opening your heart. “You’re pushing love away, when it throws you a rope,” the vocalist laments. “You keep turning the pages, cause you’re losing hope.” Ultimately, our heroine decides to take a leap of faith. “Say yes, once more,” Céline urges herself. “You deserve to feel that rush again, say yes once more.” It’s sweet, beautifully written and exquisitely performed. “Say Yes” wouldn’t sound out of place in a musical. In that it conveys a whole story and packs a huge emotional punch.

09. Nobody’s Watching

Another Jörgen Elofsson production, “Nobody’s Watching” is even more surprising than “Say Yes.” It’s a jazzy little number about closing your ears to the haters and just doing you. In comparison to some of the other cuts, it feels a little lightweight. However, this is a record in need of a little levity and “Nobody’s Watching” delivers it via offbeat production and quirky lyrics. “I wanna sing like nobody’s listening, I wanna talk like nobody cares,” Céline declares. “I wanna wear whatever I wear, I wanna dance dance dance dance dance like nobody’s watching.”

10. The Chase

After a series of songs about learning to love again, “The Chase” finds the legendary songbird in the grips of a new romance. Produced by Craig McConnell, this has a slight country twist. In both the production and the narrative that unfolds in the lyrics. “This is from a girl, who still believed that there was someone in the world,” Céline purrs. “To take her at her best and her worst, won’t give up when it hurts.” Happily, she might have found The One. “I wish you’d stay cause there’s something about the chase,” she sings. “That’s got you running through my mind all day.” It’s another quirky contribution to an eclectic album that somehow still manages to feel quintessentially Céline.

11. For The Lover That I Lost

Just when the tone of Courage started to feel a little lighter, “For The Lover That I Lost” returns to the topic of loss. Co-written by Sam Smith, Jimmy Napes and Stargate, this is one of the most heartbreaking songs on the album. “Think about your lips and the way you kiss, there’s so much I really miss about you,” she pines. It gets even more heartbreaking as the chorus kicks in. “So I laid a dozen roses for the lover that I lost, I stand by all my choices even though I paid the cost,” the enduring hitmaker belts. “Oh all those nights the lows and highs, I share them all with you.” Of all the songs that try to get inside Céline’s head (and heart) in the wake of her personal tragedy, this and “Falling In Love Again” feel the most authentic. It helps that it is exquisitely produced with lashings of strings.

12. Baby

The high profile collaborators continue on “Baby.” Co-written by Sia, Mozella and Greg Kurstin, “Baby” is more uptempo than “For The lover That I Lost.” But it covers similar ground. This is about dealing with loss and loneliness. “Don’t wanna think too much, think too much but that’s what I do,” Céline admits. “Missing you is all I know, when you were close I felt every move.” She continues to unburden herself as the song progresses. “Now I don’t wanna feel this pain… crying is the only thing that gets me through.” This is another emotional gut punch.

13. I Will Be Stronger

Written and produced by Eg White, “I Will Be Stronger” is about the light at the end of the tunnel. The moment when the heartache starts to lift enough to believe that there are happier times ahead. “You were always stronger than me, the first in the deep end but then the first to leave,” Céline sings. “And I have missed you so heavily, but the weight’s kind of lifting, I’m seeing colors in the street.” While this is especially touching given the diva’s situation, the lyrics are universal. “I Will Be Stronger” is a wonderfully optimistic ode to healing, and one of the many highlights on Courage.

14. How Did You Get Here

“How Did You Get Here” is the perfect followup to “I Will Be Stronger.” Produced by The Stereotypes, the soulful track is about discovering new love. “I’ve been thinking about you, more than I want to,” Céline sings over smooth, old-school R&B production. “Spinning me around in this web, getting in my heart and my head.” The legendary vocalist then pulls the trigger on the funky chorus. “I wasn’t looking for love, I was comfortable,” she belts. “How did you get here?” This is the great diva’s best soul moment since her iconic cover of “River Deep, Mountain High.”

15. Look At Us Now

The album isn’t only about loss and starting over. Céline also sings about the end of a relationship on “Look At Us Now.” Produced by Andrew Wells, this is plea for something to change before the bitter end. “Hard to look at pictures on the wall, hard to pick the phone up when you call,” our Lady of Octaves sings. “Hardly talking anymore, cause a single word could start a war, but once upon a time we had it all.” That takes us to the powerful chorus. “Who would have known the future wasn’t for us, fools we got it wrong,” she sings in her lower register. “Thinking that we lean on love, but look at us now.”

16. Perfect Goodbye

Yes, “Perfect Goodbye” is about endings. However, Céline puts herself in the shoes of the person leaving. Produced by Max Wolfgang, this is a real tearjerker. “45 steps in the same direction, oh ain’t it strange we’re here connecting,” she belts. “Don’t need to understand if God’s got a plan, it’s out of our hands.” Just when you think you can keep the sobs at bay, the pop icon drops this on us. “Goodnight baby with the stars in the sky,” she sings. “This is the perfect goodbye.” It’s a fitting end to the standard album, but there are more gems in store.


17. Best Of All

Written and produced by Eg White (the mastermind behind “I Will Be Stronger”), “Best Of All” is the kind of blissful love song that feels quintessentially Céline. “All of my life, I’ve been blown by the wind,” she sings over strummed guitar and gentle piano keys on the chorus. “In and out of lonely places washed up everywhere, but now I know where I’m going.” The living legend then realizes that what she feels is real. “Is it madness, is it the worst kind of madness,” Céline asks. “No, it’s the best of all.” This is the kind of song that gently washes over you without feeling overwrought or insincere.

18. Heart Of Glass

Sia and Greg Kurstin return for “Heart Of Glass” (not a Blondie cover), and it’s certainly one of the album’s true curiosities. “Felt the night sky closing in, closing in on me,” Céline purrs over fuzzy synths. “Couldn’t scream, couldn’t dream — only nightmares.” She then pulls the trigger on the chorus: “Up ’til now I was living in a heart of glass.” It’s anthemic, instantly catchy and ranks alongside “Imperfections” as one of the most contemporary. This is well worth hunting down.

19. Boundaries

Alt-pop singer Maty Noyes lands a credit on Courage with a stripped-back love song. “We are the ones that walk to fire and people say don’t touch,” Céline sings over Stephen Moccio’s simple piano arrangement. “We are the ones that never listen, we can’t get burned enough.” She then sings about their once-in-a-lifetime love on the sublime chorus. “And there’s no boundaries, I can never hurt you, you could never hurt me,” she promises. “And we’re so unique, falling in love and letting love be.” Of all the bonus tracks, this feels like it most deserved a spot on the standard album. The melody is truly memorable, and Céline soars as only she can on the chorus. This is exquisite from beginning to end.

20. The Hard Way

Céline winds up her 20-track album by sharing some words of wisdom on “The Hard Way.” Produced by Greg Wells, this mid-tempo anthem is about accepting life’s knocks and learning from them. “I’ve been touching fires for the sake of feeling, I’ve been chasing, chasing, chasing all these highs,” she belts. “So I could crash the ceiling.” That leads to the piano-pop chorus. “You gotta break just a little, die just a little to come alive in the right way,” she preaches “And sometimes to get home, you gotta go the hard way, hard way.” There’s even a choir to emphasize the righteousness of Céline’s message. All in all, it’s a great end to a triumphant album.

Score: 4.5/5

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