Celine Dion was on a Studio City soundstage last week, rehearsing for her performance on a holiday TV special. Ne-Yo had joined the French Canadian singer to run through "Incredible," a duet from Dion's new album, but almost as soon as she'd tilted her head back to unleash a flurry of octave-scaling notes, an abashed expression flashed across her face.
"I was too early," she told Ne-Yo. Then she laughed, aware perhaps that no one else in the room had noticed. "Hey, even when we're bad, we're good," she said.
Few Dion fans could've imagined such an easygoing attitude back when the singer was chewing through the competition with "My Heart Will Go On," the bombastic love theme from James Cameron's "Titanic." The song won Grammy Awards for record and song of the year and drove Dion's 1997 album "Let's Talk About Love" to sales of over 10 million copies in the United States alone.
But the more relaxed vibe is in keeping with Dion's latest, "Loved Me Back to Life." Released last month, when it entered Billboard's album chart at No. 2, the disc has a relatively low-key sound distinct from her trademark power balladry; there are hushed acoustic guitars, restrained rhythm-section grooves and tasty renditions of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" (with Wonder on guest vocals) and "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian.
Several cuts even show off a sensual R&B quality we've never really gotten from Dion, as in the slow-burning "Didn't Know Love" and "Water and a Flame," for which she recruited the British writer-producer Francis "Eg" White, who's also worked with Adele and Florence and the Machine. (Other au courant collaborators on the album include Sia, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and Tricky Stewart.)
"It was harder for me — much harder — to make it less perfect," said Dion, 45, in a trailer parked outside the studio before the rehearsal. Dressed in a white sweater and ripped white jeans, with a camel-colored coat draped over her shoulders, she was sipping a cup of tea as she went over the script for "A Home for the Holidays," set to air Wednesday night on CBS.
"I haven't been trained this way — to let the grain in my voice come out, to let it break. It's blue instead of red, you know?" She tossed the script aside, emphasizing the thought with a pop diva's punctuation mark. "But it's wonderful. I feel like I've taken a few drinks and I'm letting my soul out."
Ne-Yo — the Grammy-winning R&B star who also worked on Dion's last English-language album, 2007's "Taking Chances" — said "Loved Me Back to Life" is "about having people connect to her on that human level as opposed to being above the reality of what it is to be a person.'"
"It's more real, more raw," he added.
As effectively as she handles it, Dion picked a curious time for such a shift, given the prevalence of the breast-beating form she did as much as anyone to popularize. Rihanna's "Stay," Katy Perry's "Unconditionally," Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" — each splashes in the wake of "My Heart Will Go On."
Yet Jack Sussman of CBS suggested the counterintuitive move might be a bit of strategy at a moment when those younger singers are dominating Top 40 radio and social media.
"Everyone was trying to imitate her thing, so I think she said, 'They're zigging — I'm going to zag,'" said the executive, who oversees the network's music programming. "But the only way you can do that, of course, is if you're as good as Celine is."
"Loved Me Back to Life" doesn't entirely forgo the old grandiosity.
In "Breakaway" she uses plenty of swooping vocal technique to sell her despair as she wonders, "What if all I am without the pain is empty heartache?" (It's one of several lines that make less sense on the page than it does set to music.) And the title track layers her singing over a stately marching-drum beat evidently designed to get audience members to wave their illuminated cellphones.
Not coincidentally, the latter tune is among the handful from the new album that Dion said she's adding to her show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where she's next scheduled to perform Dec. 30 and 31.
That's just a few days after the planned opening of Britney Spears' two-year engagement at Planet Hollywood, a gig unlikely to have happened without Dion's first trip to Vegas in 2003 with "A New Day." The wildly successful production paved the way for acts including Elton John, Toni Braxton and even Mötley Crüe to set up shop in the once-moribund Sin City.
In her trailer Dion declined to take credit for remaking the idea of entertainment on the Strip. But she admitted that many stars — "Michael Jackson, Prince, I can't name them all" — had come to see her during that initial run.
"They were all interested — like, 'How is it?'" she recalled. "They were very curious about whether it was really possible to do it in Vegas." Dion, the mother of three, said she told them the same thing she'd tell Spears if the former teen-pop star asked: "It's a great opportunity to be a parent, to raise your children and to be the entertainer you want to be."
Celine Dion as down-home truth-teller. Who knew?
'A Home for the Holidays With Celine Dion'
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)