Sans attendre might not be Dion's Berlin, exactly, but there's considerably more darkness here than one might expect from a mainstream pop album. Longing for a departed father, the cruelty of love, the healing power of tears, the waning days of an aging mother, the emotional consolation sought by a single parent, the loss of a lover to war, the realization that a long-standing relationship is dead, the misery of a baby's death and the romantic upheaval of a serious fight are among the themes tackled in the songs chosen by Dion.
Clearly, this is a disc full of Big Dramatic Emotion — not exactly unexpected as material for Dion's larger-than-life voice. To be fair, though, most of the performances are refreshingly subdued and controlled, as are the arrangements.
The disc's two singles, which kick off the album's stronger first half, are fine examples: Parler à mon père and Le miracle both have instantly-accessible melodies for Dion to navigate and make perfect vehicles for her to sail gracefully. Similarly, the lightly-orchestrated Moi quand je pleure boasts the disc's only unusual chord structure, allowing Dion to negotiate its more interesting turns without falling into bad old habits.
The duets are also revealing in spots. Two are with Jean-Pierre Ferland (Une chance qu'on s'a and Je n'ai pas besoin d'amour, which he wrote especially for her), one is performed with Johnny Hallyday (L'amour peut prendre froid) and a fourth summons the late Henri Salvador, through the miracle of technology (Tant de temps). Mostly, Dion plays sensitively off her partners, blending most effectively with Ferland's weathered pipes.
But this being a Céline album, you know there will be grandstanding. She can't always keep away from the overdone, melismatic outbursts, but such moments are relatively few.
Some of the material is problematic, notably the four songs with music by David Gategno, which push all the generic buttons of contemporary pop writing. Among the lowest points is Gategno and Élodie Hesmé's Qui peut vivre sans amour?, no doubt conceived as a quasi-arena-rock showcase, which falls on its face with a strangely abrasive, tuneless chorus.
The absolute nadir comes when the album's second-half slump ends with Les petits pieds de Léa, a maudlin monstrosity in which a mother sings to her dead baby and ruminates on all the moments they will not share. The inspiration is from lyricist Marianne L'Heureux's real-life tragedy, which can't be minimized, but the composition that came out of the grief is simply an unfortunate move.
Luckily, the deluxe version of the album removes the bad taste of the song with two bonus tracks: a forceful attack on Jacques Brel's classic Ne me quitte pas and the serviceable pop of Les jours comme ça.
As ever, even detractors of Dion will concede that her technique is perfect. Those who think technique is only worth something when it is in the service of soul might find their long-standing concerns with the chanteuse's work unresolved by Sans attendre.