If there’s a single technique which – however unfairly – defines 90s and 00s soul music for the British public, it’s melisma, and if there’s a single record that cemented that link, it’s “I Will Always Love You”, at number one for a whole winter, by the end of which it was fixed as either one of pop’s all-time great love songs or one of its most reviled dirges.
Certainly it took me a very long time to scrape away that reflexive distaste and try and listen to the record fresh. There’s no denying that Whitney Houston uses the song as a vocal gymnasium, but the repertoire she shows off isn’t just note-bending and belting. She goes hushed too, clips syllables when she needs to, and lets words drain out into sadness as often as she sets them spinning. As a rule she sustains the “I”s – an unwavering blast of strength – and goes to polysyllabic bits at the end of each “you”, which seems fair enough since the you is the lover she can’t hold onto and must walk away from. Like most songs damned as melismatic showboating there’s plenty of thought involved: technique is hardly ever ‘just’ technique.
Certainly this isn’t an especially naturalistic reading. It became fashionable back then to praise the Dolly Parton originals as being subtler and more moving than Whitney’s Olympian approach. Maybe they are: they’re great records, easy to listen to and more conversational than Whitney’s cover. Dolly sings the song’s terrific, heartbreaking opening couplet – “If I should stay / I would only be in your way” – with matter-of-fact sadness: it bounds the song, establishing the singer’s love as doomed. Whitney – famously taking the verse a capella – breaks the line into five distinct phrases, broken puzzle pieces she’s refusing to fit back together because doing so would mean giving up. Dolly’s version is a tragedy – her love is also her cross to bear; Whitney’s is an elemental struggle, each bludgeoning crescendo a deliberate raising of the stakes.
It’s no fault of her performance that the arrangement can’t do it justice. After the initial coup of the naked verse the music tracks her in the most blundering way possible – bashing and flailing where she’s steely and graceful. Houston’s vocals don’t need the key changes and the stomping drums and they certainly don’t need that sax solo, but for all her strength she’s helpless against a greater force: this is a blockbuster soundtrack single and that’s what such things sound like. It means – despite Whitney’s flawless precision – I still find this single more bullying than beautiful.