Tuesday, March 18, 2014

album review: 'sex and love' by enrique iglesias

So back in the 90s after grunge fizzled out all too early, pop music went through something of an identity crisis in terms of what music would chart. Pop punk, swing dance, the ska revival, Europop, boy bands, nu metal, post-grunge, adult alternative, and all manner of other genres competing for cultural dominance. It was a swirling mess of confusion that led to all manner of one-hit wonders and acts that would fizzle out dramatically in the early 2000s after 9/11 when the charts got a whole lot darker and angrier.

And one of those crazes of the time was the Latin revival, and leading the charge was Enrique Iglesias. Son of Julio Iglesias, one of the most famous and successful Latin music acts of all time, Enrique broke into English radio after two well-received Spanish albums thanks to the recommendations of Gerardo (the mugging asshole who sang 'Rico Suave'). And for a brief few years, Enrique Iglesias' fusion of Latin romance and high-energy dance tracks were a pretty potent force on the pop charts. And I'll admit, I bought into it: the production had flavour, Enrique's sincerity and passion overcame some of the questionable lyrics, and the man did have some real charisma. The man has made some killer songs that I enjoy to this day, and I won't apologize for it.

But the pop charts have always been fickle, and a few years later, Enrique Iglesias' career on English radio seemed to sputter out. His 2007 album went nowhere even though he was experimenting with a darker style, and even critics who had supported him in the past weren't exactly fond of it. So in 2010, he continued his reinvention from the smooth Latin lover into more of the club VIP, and thanks to collaborations with the other reinvented Latin artist Pitbull (people forget he used to make crunk music), he managed to leap back into the spotlight. This time, however, I wasn't onboard - the love-struck sincerity seemed less genuine now, and coupled with lyrics that were worse than ever in songs like 'Tonight (I'm Loving You)' or 'I Like It' or 'Dirty Dancer', and an abundance of sterile modern production and that sucked away his humanity, I was just about done with Enrique Iglesias.

So to be honest, I wasn't looking forward to covering this new album Sex and Love. Every step towards a rougher club/dance sound had made his music get worse, and considering initial buzz on this album was that it was sleazier than ever, I expected the worst. So what did I get?

Well, to be honest, this album was a little better than I expected, and I ended up enjoying chunks of Sex And Love more than I thought I would. The album is far from great - in fact, the record really is a gigantic mess that fails more often than it succeeds, and there are huge problems with it - but I do see improvement and some good ideas here, nothing that's going to save this album so much as bump it up to a passing grade in my books.

Now some of you are probably wondering how can say the album is a gigantic mess and yet still find redeeming qualities. Well, part of that is linked to the timeframe in which this record was made, which took over three years of production and you can tell. There are songs that would sound out-of-place on the radio now, but would have fit in fine in 2011 and have some decent flavour on their own. The fun fact about the instrumentation is that his better songs have tended to be driven by guitar, and on this record, we get a pretty broad selection of guitar tones that Enrique utilizes, from Spanish guitar on 'Bailando' to a reggae-esque riff on 'There Goes My Baby'. And when you have guitar driving your pop song, you tend to get a more melodic focus and I like that. That's not saying there aren't problems with the instrumentation on this record - the pop dubstep crunch of 'Heart Attack' and the squealing borderline-Chipmunk voice effects on 'Still Your King' are their own brand of over-produced awful, but I don't blame Enrique for that. Nope, I blame The Cataracs, a production team you can blame for all manner of terrible songs from the past three years. And while they do bring a little more flavour to this album, the production only rises to bland at best in my books - and the worst part is that Enrique got them for almost half of this album.

On top of that, his guest stars are a real mixed bag too. It's a worrying sign when Pitbull has three collaborations on this record (I'm reviewing the deluxe edition), and only one of them goes above pure horny idiocy. Flo Rida doesn't fare much better, and while J. Lo is passable, I get the feeling anyone could have done her verse. The two performers who actually did deliver well were Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona on 'Bailando', mostly because they brought a lot of vocal flavour and personality and didn't embarrass themselves. And of course, Kylie Minogue shows up for 'Beautiful', and while I have warmed to it a bit over the past few days and additional listens, I can't get over the fact that it's over-produced, the Autotune should have been excised, and that it was a better fit over on Kylie's record.

But believe it or not, it's not the instrumentation or production that makes this album really feel messy - no, that comes down to Enrique himself and the bizarre split that comprises most of this record. For about half of this album, it sticks with club hook-up songs that were played out years ago and really come across as sleazy. Now some of you are inevitably saying that, 'What, Mark, you like hair metal and crunk and Ke$ha, why would you rip on Enrique for getting his freak on?' Well, I've always said there's two things you need to pull off sleazy music well: you need charisma and you need self-awareness. And honestly, this is where Enrique has improved a bit - he seems more aware of the swaggering alpha male he needs to be on these tracks, and he's arguably a little better at it or at least seems to be having more fun. That being said, any time he steps into this vein on a break-up song like 'Heart Attack' or the absolutely terrible 'Still Your King' or the Maroon 5-esque 'There Goes My Baby', his mixture of smug arrogance or overwrought delivery don't win him any points, especially considering he's not a nuanced-enough songwriter to pull this sort of material off without looking like an entitled asshole. But at its best here, while the material can be amazingly dumb, it's fun in a shallow, debauched sort of way...

Until you listen to songs like 'Bailando' or 'Loco' or 'Only A Woman' or hell, even 'Beautiful', where Enrique seems a lot more in his natural element as the smooth, heartfelt Latin pop singer, and when the production supports him here, I'm reminded of the Enrique Iglesias I really liked. This is the Enrique Iglesias that feels real to me, and thus the problem is that the two visions of Enrique Iglesias - a dichotomy he helpfully illustrates in the album title - undercut each other. I don't buy that the smooth ladies' man Enrique would behave like such a braying alpha douche, and I really don't buy club VIP Enrique would treat women with the heartfelt honesty in a hunt for true love and not just for a one night stand. I get the feeling there is a middle ground, and the best point on the album where he gets there is 'Bailando', but then again, that song is all in Spanish. But then again, even though I don't speak Spanish, I checked Google Translate and honestly his Spanish songs on this album from that rough translation have more poetry and seem better written - maybe he should stick with those.

So in the end, I'm a little confused how I should feel about this album. Putting aside the songs produced by The Cataracs, which are at best mediocre, this album isn't that bad. I liked some of the melodic flair in the instrumentation, and when they let Enrique sound more raw and vulnerable, it's an element he can play very well. I still don't think he's a great songwriter, and it hurts him even on his better songs on this record, but he's developing a more varied presence as a performer, and I definitely get why he has his massive audience and fanbase. In the end, I'm giving this album a 6/10 and a recommendation, but for only about half of this album, with a preference on the Spanish songs, which feel more relaxed, comfortable, and genuinely better written than his English work. Sometimes, maybe you should just stick to what you know rather than be someone you're not.

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