Fresh off her I-am-a-bulimic confessional with Diane Sawyer, Paula Abdul returns to record stores today with “Head Over Heels,” her first new album in four years. It’s one of several comeback discs making June a busy music month; Top 40 giants Michael Jackson and Jon Bon Jovi soon follow.
Abdul’s run of No. 1 singles, a sold-out arena tour and those inventive commercials for Diet Coke made her an indomitable pop force from 1988 to 1992. Few choreographers would dare to edit themselves into some of Gene Kelly’s best-known movie scenes, but Abdul’s crisp dancing more than held up.
But shifting trends and Abdul’s personal struggles have kept her out of sight lately, so much so that her smash 1988 debut - the 7-million-seller “Forever Your Girl” - seems like a lifetime ago.
“Head Over Heels,” her third album, should prove an important career test. If it triumphs, Abdul likely will outsmart the pop gene that sends most starlets packing after one or two albums. And three top-selling recordings also will move her way up within her own industry, taking her from mere hit-maker to “career artist,” the kind of bankable music celebrity loved by show-biz dealmakers.
Can Abdul - 33 next week - cross this threshold? It may be difficult. Though ‘90s alterna-trends are ebbing, leaving room for the return of traditional pop superstars, Abdul still will have to reprove herself with record buyers.
Her confident stage presence and slick dance skills have never been at issue, but her voice is a chief liability. It’s thin and virtually bloodless. We made do with her singing years ago because her imaginative videos drew attention away from it.
After a steady diet of unplugged everything, fans are wiser and will demand better. Yet “Head Over Heels” finds Abdul precisely where she left off: drowning in synthesized excess and so-so melodies despite a battalion of co-writers and producers. Six people to write a single song? Absurd.
With all that, only two tracks shine. “Love Don’t Come Easy” rings with a tough R&B; chorus. The minor-key ballad, “If I Were Your Girl,” co-written by the TV actress (and sometime musician) Crystal Bernard of NBC’s “Wings,” should be Abdul’s next radio hit. From there, MTV will have to do the rest.