Thursday, July 3, 2014

album review: 'paula' by robin thicke

It has been quite the year for Robin Thicke.

Around this time in 2013, Robin Thicke released the album Blurred Lines, an album that would catapult him to the top of the charts with its eponymous single and incite angry thinkpieces by music journalists for the rest of the year, especially after the controversy of the VMAs - which, really, since Kanye West hijacked the microphone from Taylor Swift in 2009, was the best thing that could have happened for that exercise in pointlessness in years.

Now lost among the hyperbole and accusations and inveterate trolling were a few things. Most notably, one important question should have been recovered: was the album any good? Well, it was one of the first reviews I ever made and I do stand by it, and I stand by my assertion that the whole 'Blurred Lines' controversy was blown way out of proportion, especially in a year that had songs that also charted that were far, far worse. Did everyone just forget the Rocko, Rick Ross, and Future collaboration that framed date rape as no big deal, or a good chunk of Lil Wayne's output in 2013? I'm not going to reiterate what I've said about 'Blurred Lines' - the review's right here, go check it if you're interested - but speaking as a feminist, I will say this: there's a big difference between being a misogynist and a moron. And ever since the beginning of his career, Thicke falls into the latter category, especially with his lyrics, which frequently fall on the wrong side of the line between 'charming' and 'goofy as hell'. And combined with the fact that he never really seemed to have the charisma or emotional investment in his material of Justin Timberlake or Usher, it's no surprise Thicke got hit by a backlash tsunami, and it also makes sense why he seemed completely clueless as to why. 

But this backlash wasn't the only thing to hit Robin Thicke this year, as his wife Paula Patton also left him for a slew of complicated reasons on which none of the gossip websites I had to visit for researching this review could agree. What did become apparent is that Thicke was nowhere near as 'over' the relationship as Paula, because he chose to release a full album of material named after her in an attempt to win her back. I'll admit, I had a really bad feeling about this record. Like it or not, as much as Thicke might see it as a grand romantic gesture and as much as I might respect the man for showing vulnerability in his subject matter... look, not many R&B acts can do this sort of album well. But I was definitely curious so I gave Paula a couple listens - is it any good?

Ugh, this is exasperating - because honestly, this record might have had a hope in hell of working if it wasn't so plainly clear that Robin Thicke was playing this entirely straight and directing all of it at his ex-wife. Because don't get me wrong, there are moments that when they are completely removed from context are actually pretty good... but what I and you all likely suspected is true, because Paula by Robin Thicke, despite some good intentions, is mediocre at best. It's nowhere near the worst record I've heard this year or one I find all that offensive, but it's a record that goes wrong in all of the places you'd expect it to, plus more. That said, I still recommend you listen to it, because it's a damn perfect object lesson on how these sorts of records can go wrong, because I sincerely believe there was promise here.

Okay, so to get to the meat of why Paula fails, let's pose a question: is there a way in today's society that such a record might be able to work, a plea for a lover to come back? Well, for an example, let's look at - of all things - a Taylor Swift song, one I actually really like called 'Back To December' from her third album Speak Now. It's one of the few Taylor Swift songs that places her in a real vulnerable position as she begs for her ex to give her another chance after she screwed things up. And what I like about the song is the framing: Taylor Swift knows full well that her desperate plea will likely go unanswered, but she's got to give it one more try. And before going into Paula, I figured that if Robin Thicke could sustain that sort of emotion, he might be able to make this work...

And to be fair, there are moments where it gets close. The one reasonably smart decision Thicke makes is to give the album a bit of a dramatic arc, starting with the basic heartbroken plea before slowly progressing to something close to acceptance of their separation. And to give him a little more credit, you can tell he's at least trying to present a nuanced picture - he puts his own faults and failures on display, he admits he can be a liar and how they probably aren't right for each other, and he tries to own up to his mistakes. And by the end of the album comes along, you can tell he is at least somewhat resigned to reality, even if he still does carry a torch for her.

But here's where things start going wrong, and it starts from what could have been a good idea: Robin Thicke uses female vocals to represent his ex-wife on certain tracks. Possibly an inspired choice to present both sides of the story or show greater context, but the entire story is still framed entirely around Robin Thicke. Sure, you get songs that get close like 'Lock The Door' where he makes points about his own mistakes, but then you have 'Whatever I Want', which seems to be set as a 'freedom' anthem for his wife that really comes across as awkward coming from him. And then there's 'Black Tar Cloud', a song that tries to describe the conflicts in his marriage, but ends up framing his wife as far worse than him in terms of violent outbursts and faking a suicide attempt... yeah, 'awkward' is right! In fact, 'awkward' is probably the best word to describe the lyrics on this album, because they frequently step into territory that Robin Thicke would have been better not putting on record. When the album starts with six minutes of Thicke cooing over a Spanish guitar that she's his fantasy and then two songs later in 'Still Madly Crazy' - which is one of the better songs on this album - has the lyric 'I'm so sorry you had to suffer my lack of self-control', Thicke isn't putting forward the best picture of himself and showing no evidence that he'd change. 

And what's worse is that Thicke is nowhere close to subtle: when he tries to go for the sentiment 'maybe love might come back', he plays it like a brassy Broadway/noir showstopper with all manner of references to fresh fruit that might be sexual innuendo and lyrics like 'You know cigarettes are bad for you baby... and so am I' - and if this was intended to be a parody, it'd be ingenious, but it's not. A similar framing problem crops up with 'Something Bad', which is probably my favourite song on the album simply because it's kitschy and silly as hell as Thicke tries to embrace the 'bad boy'... and then you realize he's playing it straight, sincerely thinks he sounds cool, and it's on an album directed to try to win back his ex-wife. And that's not touching on 'New York', a song where Robin Thicke tries to imitate R. Kelly's R&B lyrical delivery and comes off as one of the most embarrassing and borderline offensive songs he's ever written, or the self-flagellating and utterly abysmal 'The Opposite of Me', which tries to go for confessional honesty in a borderline white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar song that featured lyrics 'All she wants is the opposite of me', where said opposite involves, you know 'the action, not the words', or the fact that Robin Thicke was plainly never the man he was supposed to be and how she should have just accepted his cheating and carousing. No wait, that song is how he never could have been the man for her... except by the end of the album on 'Forever Love' he makes it clear he still wants her back and do you see how many mixed messages Thicke is sending here? The album might be honest in portraying Thicke, but if this was a record about showing how he's clearly the right person and that he's worth the return, he fails completely because there's no indication he's changed or he won't do it again - in fact, it almost seems to reinforce the idea that he will and attempts to weakly justify it! Is anyone else reminded of Jason Derulo's 'Whatcha Say' from 2009, because that's what this record feels like!

And if the instrumentation and production was better... well, the album wouldn't be good, but it'd be marginally more tolerable. The frustrating fact is less that it's bad and more that it's incredibly inconsistent. 'You're My Fantasy', 'Still Madly Crazy', 'Whatever I Want', 'Black Tar Cloud', and especially 'Something Bad' have pretty solid grooves that call back to funk and soul, well-balanced production, and if you turn off your brain or completely forget this album is about Robin Thicke's ex-wife, they can be fun. But the jazzier tracks like 'Love Can Grow Back', 'Tippy Toes', and 'Time Of Your Life' sound chintzier than your average Seth McFarlane Family Guy number, songs like 'Get Her Back' and 'Too Little Too Late' sound incredibly stiff and leaden, and the omnipresent squealing female vocals call to mind a throwback vibe that might not be the best image for Thicke to draw upon. The biggest example of this is 'Lock That Door', which seems to be trying to toe the line between gospel and symphonic vocals and has nowhere near the passion or texture in those vocals to pull it off.

But ultimately, the problem with this album circles back to Robin Thicke, because say what you will about acts like Eminem or Usher or Drake who have built their careers on airing dirty laundry, they do have charisma and are capable enough singers to convey that sort of vulnerability. Or hell, take an act like Justin Timberlake, who might not have the greatest emotional range but has so much charisma and presence behind the microphone that he can make even his blatant kiss-off tracks compelling. Robin Thicke falls somewhere in the middle - entirely too open with the lyrical subject matter, but a little too reserved with his vocal delivery to really make it credible. Don't get me wrong, I think his voice is pleasant enough and I like his lower range, but there are very few moments where he comes across as raw, or really delivers the charisma and personality to save this record... if indeed, it could be saved.

In other words, Paula by Robin Thicke is a failure - a failure with interesting ideas and a few stabs at greater nuance, but it's let down by a performer who doesn't bring the vocal expressiveness or the greatest songwriting to the table. What's frustrating is that you can tell Robin Thicke was really trying with this record, but the tonal inconsistencies, the many questionable lyrics, and the only so-so instrumentation doesn't help matters. For me, it's a 4/10, but it is a fascinating listen so I do recommend you check it out. But I can be certain of one thing for sure: after releasing this, Robin Thicke is going to be single for a long, long time.

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