Monday, June 29, 2015

album review: 'wildheart' by miguel

So one of the biggest journeys I've taken throughout the creation of this blog is through modern R&B. I didn't used to care for the genre all that much a few years ago and have found myself really coming to love more and more of it as the years have passed. And one of the artists that I've always found myself a little fascinated with along the way is Frank Ocean - and by that, I mean Miguel.

Okay, that might not make a lot of sense, but it's bizarre how much Miguel seems to be overlooked in terms of hype and critical success. Maybe it was just bad timing, but for as colourful and genuinely fun as Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream was in 2012, it was overshadowed by Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE and everybody seemed to forget Miguel existed beyond 'Adorn' and a few guest spots. And while I'm not going to say Kaleidoscope Dream was better than channel ORANGE - it's not - I've always felt that Miguel is an underrated R&B star, in the indie scene and especially in the mainstream. I mean, was it just a chance collaboration with Ariana Grande that allowed The Weeknd nearly a half-dozen top 40 spots while Miguel has to struggle to even get there?

But in a way it makes sense, because as a composer, Miguel is kind of weird. Lyrically, he doesn't often stray from typical R&B territory - arguably the biggest facet that held him back from challenging Frank Ocean in 2012 - but his personality and sound are much more eclectic, bleeding across genres in a way that reminds me more of Prince than most modern R&B histrionics. But the element that crept up on me about Miguel is a understated charisma that's genuinely charming - he's often just as explicit, but he makes it sound fun and has some class about it. Now as I said I didn't love Kaleidoscope Dream, mostly because the lyrics occasionally got silly and the production was a little overdone at points, not confident enough to let Miguel coast on a great groove. But as I said on Billboard BREAKDOWN, with the lead-off single 'Coffee' for his newest album Wildheart he got me really excited for this album - how did it turn out?

Well, it's certainly interesting, that's for damn sure. If I thought that Kaleidoscope Dream was colourful in its choice of instrumentation and production, Wildheart is even more varied, pushing the Prince comparison even more starkly to the forefront as it leaps across funk, indie R&B, hip-hop, and even fringes of psychedelic, glam, and surf rock. In other words, Wildheart takes a lot more chances with its instrumentation and style, trying to recreate a smoky, drugged-out and slightly modernized recreation of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls... and yeah, it doesn't always stick the landing. This is one of the albums where the highs are absolutely excellent, but the lows are pretty hard to swallow, which ultimately means that it doesn't exactly rise above Kaleidoscope Dream, even though I'd argue there's more standout tracks here.

So let's start with Miguel himself, the primary reason why should all be listening to this record. I can't lie, an album this eclectic wouldn't function if you didn't have a singer with the frankly shocking range that Miguel shows on this album, and I mean vocal and emotional. Sure, there's more fuzziness and reverb on the vocal production that I'd usually prefer, but that doesn't take away from Miguel's intensity, his passion, and his jaw-dropping falsetto. He's got the killer charisma to make it look easy and you can believe everything he says, especially when he gets into some of the kinkier songs like 'The Valley' or 'FLESH' - there's an earnestness behind his delivery that no matter how sexual this record gets, it's coming from a real organic place. And primarily, this is his affair, and even despite the thicker, heavier sounds, it feels strikingly intimate and dense, with the only guest star being Kurrupt whose laid-back sleaze on 'NWA' adds a more modern West Coast flavor to the track that goes down incredibly well.

But we have to talk about the instrumentation and production, where the biggest highs and lows ultimately occur. The first thing that will draw notice are the guitars - they're dense, they drive heavier grooves, they have a fair amount of distortion thickening the atmosphere. I might not love the first track on 'abeautifulexit', but that's more because of underwritten lyrics than that tense guitar line or the frantic cymbals. And really, when this album is at its best is when it can build off of that groove - I've already talked about how great 'Coffee' can work off a great textured bass and murky guitar rollick and razor-sharp percussion, but 'NWA' takes the rattling percussion and what I think is a cowbell and pairs it with a simmering guitar line that balances against one of the few good synthesizer lines on the album. 'waves' has a breezy brand of lo-fi funk and surf rock that's destined to become the hipster song of the summer, 'Hollywood Dreams' has a guitar line that feels pulled straight out of 70s Bowie with a blatant lyrical lift from 'Heroes', '...goingtohell' opens with a motorcycle revving before breaking into a noisy rattling psychedelic riff that is then paired with distorted synth arpeggios and a guitar solo, 'leaves' is anchored in a simmering guitar riff that almost reminds me of 'Lazy Eye' by Silversun Pickups, and 'face the sun' just outright gets Lenny Kravitz for its hazy fire as if this album wasn't soaked in California enough. 

And you know, if it stuck with these all the way through, this album could have been spectacular... but there's no way to get around it: most of the synth and keyboard lines have no place on this album. I get going for left-field - hell, if you look at R&B over the past three years, this entire album is left-field - but the tones chosen just don't work. 'DEAL' opens with a windswept guitar rollick before switching beats and tempos into an overmixed mess, and the spacey synth flutters are the biggest factor. 'destinado a morir' actually has a ton of menace in the bass and low-end, especially over the chorus, but that synth oscillation is way too ligthweight and spoils an otherwise good track. And that's not counting the points where this album just gets weird, like on 'The Valley' - the pummelling bass, that warped low-end synth, the sandy handclaps, the blubbery chiptune, it sounds like something Death Grips might have made, an impression only further intensified on the noisy warped tones of 'FLESH' that certainly creates a more believable BDSM-inspired song that anything The Weeknd has ever done, but it's nowhere near tight and the dank, abortive guitar line doesn't help it.

But on that note, let's talk about lyrics... and the other area where Miguel can struggle. His poetry isn't so much designed to tell stories so much as set a mood, and to his credit he's often pretty damn solid at doing that - hell, this entire album is grounded in a mood that I can sure as hell dig... but the text itself doesn't give me a lot to work with. But then again, it kind of makes sense - this is an album that's trying to evoke images of classic, oversaturated LA escapism, full of bikers, strippers, the surf, a ton of drugs... and yet for as much as Miguel invests in this iconography, it feels like he's grabbing for an image that constantly slides out of his grasp. And I mean that as a compliment - the heady rush of seeking those Hollywood dreams and finding one's true love in the debauchery is where this album finds the most momentum and dramatic pathos - it might be cliche, sure, but Miguel's got the skill to make it look attractive. But we don't really get a defined picture of Miguel's place in it beyond songs like 'What's Normal Anyway', where I like the sentiment but the execution is clumsy and simplistic. We get the outline of the story and we have the great colour and atmosphere that would fill in that story, but I find myself hunting for the lyrical moments that would push it over-the-top or would crystallize themes beyond cliche, and this album doesn't really take that step. Also, 'gfg' does not belong at the end of this album - it's a tonal whiplash from 'face the sun' and honestly doesn't fit.

In short, this album would make for a great soundtrack to a trashy sort of LA-inspired fame movie like Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, but it doesn't quite get there on its own. I love the mood and a lot of the instrumentation and ideas of Wildheart, and Miguel is a great presence behind the microphone, but beyond that, it feels insubstantial. It's got some great highs and fantastic atmosphere, but how long those highs last is a very different question - in other words, it's the R&B album of this summer, for better or worse. For me, it's a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for a very interesting R&B album, but I still think Miguel's got a genuine classic in him. All I hope is that he fleshes out the sounds he started on this album, because to see R&B bring in more guitars... that's only a good thing.

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