Friday, April 28, 2017

album review: 'the ride' by nelly furtado

I'm a little amazed that there were requests to cover this on Patreon - but in a bizarre way, I'm kind of glad I am. And to explain why, I need to explain my complicated relationship with this Canadian pop singer-songwriter, so storytime!

See, back in the early 2000s, the whole prefabricated and super-polished female pop star image was fading out of fashion, but it's not like this style of pop artist was going away, simply just synthesized into a new format. Thus, partially driven by the still-vibrant adult-alternative scene in the 90s, our crop of female pop stars began picking up a little more organic texture and unique personality and detail. It's how Pink became a firebrand, it's how Avril Lavigne broke out of pop punk, it's how Kelly Clarkson earned critical acclaim by going harder, and into all this, barely into her twenties with two fellow Canadian producers, came Nelly Furtado with her debut Whoa, Nelly.

And I hated it. Part of it was overexposure, I'll admit that, given how much Canadian radio will overplay Canadian talent, but for Nelly Furtado it was even worse. I didn't like her voice, her production grated on my nerves, and I despised her artistic persona. See, despite the slightly more earthy style of writing and presentation, it wasn't like the pop polish wasn't there, and Nelly Furtado's quasi-bohemian debut didn't overshadow some really annoying lyrical shortcomings, it felt so phony to me! Now I imagine this makes me sound like Steve Albini talking about Alanis Morrissette or Liz Phair - look it up - but in retrospect it was a more complicated issue: it was a debut that had a distinctive tone and style but Nelly Furtado wasn't refined enough as a performer to fully deliver. That changed on her second album Folklore was a fair bit better... and did precisely nothing in the U.S.. And so, along with so many of her contemporaries in the mid-to-late 2000s, Nelly Furtado decided to 'sell out' - which isn't accurate because she was always part of that system but it's not like the mainstream public understood that - and she hooked up with Timbaland for her third album Loose - and it was the best possible move. Sure, she wasn't convincing in 2000, but six years later with some real stage presence and charisma she released killer singles like 'Maneater', 'Promiscuous', 'Say It Right', and especially the teamup with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake that stands as one of the most defiantly arrogant and kickass mainstream songs of the decade. For two years, it looked like Nelly Furtado had it all figured out...

And then it all fell apart - and believe it or not, I don't really blame Nelly Furtado for this. Sure, probably not the best choice to release an entirely Spanish language album in 2009 rather than perpetuate her momentum, but mainstream pop was shifting to the much more synthetic club boom, and adult alternative was dying a slow death on the charts. Sure, she tried for a comeback in 2012 but by then pop had passed her by, and bad promotion from her label didn't help matters. And so Nelly Furtado did something that took me by surprise but also seemed natural: she went independent, took some time off, and met up with acclaimed indie producer John Congleton through a connection to St. Vincent. And yeah, that gave me a lot of hope going into this project: free of label constraints and old enough to refine her songwriting where she doesn't have to please the mainstream, this could be a new chapter for Nelly Furtado, especially if she remembers the grooves that made her mid-period work so potent. So, where does The Ride take us?

Huh. Okay, I've been struggling with this review for the past few days, because this is a weird record - not a bad one by any stretch, but a strange one. And when I say that I'm adding the additional qualifier that it's more weird in the context of Nelly Furtado's career than it is in comparison with a lot of modern indie pop, where it fits in pretty understandably. But after a lot of repeated listens I'm convinced that this record is more interesting to talk around than talk about directly, I'd be hardpressed to call it incredibly compelling stuff, mostly because it seems like Nelly Furtado doesn't really grasp her own strengths as an artist.

Which is frustrating because going back through this album, the one consistent compliment I'm going to give is that Nelly Furtado as a vocalist sounds great on this record. Her voice has thankfully filled out and developed some richness to amp up her natural charisma, and she's definitely a compelling and unique presence behind the microphone. She hasn't sounded this good since Loose, which also had the benefit of Timbaland's production to kick up the groove - something I desperately wish this record had. And that's a big problem, because while Nelly Furtado is no raw firebrand, her style of easy-going confidence and earthy charisma was one of the big reasons she was so damn compelling a decade ago, and it's why she worked well in hip-hop, Latin music, and the stabs at rock of which I think she could have done more. But here? It's hard not to notice how stiff and blocky a lot of these beats are, or how a few of the more robotic-leaning vocal filters on 'Live' and 'Right Road' feel - and let's just cut to the chase, a lot of this production sounds like a less-weird version of St. Vincent. And as much as I love St. Vincent, her presentation has always felt a little more stately and theatrical, with the off-kilter moments being more alien and stiff, which is not a natural fit for Furtado's voice. And note that I also said 'less weird' - we're not getting anything as crazy or as awesome as 'Bring Me Your Loves' or even 'Severed Crossed Fingers'.

Now again, that's not to say this material is bad: even if 'Cold Hard Truth' feels like it was mostly cribbed from 'Digital Witness' with more cowbell and blaring synth, and while we're on that subject 'Magic' has a lot of suspicious similarities with 'Psychopath' in its composition and hook, Congleton is a good enough producer to at least keep things workable. Yes, it's all way stiffer than it should be and desperately needs a real bass guitar and drums to loosen things up, but once we get past a pretty leaden first half of the record - which includes the whooping Goldfrapp rip with a really ugly piano line that is 'Paris Sun' - the record actually gets a little better. Sure, with the rattling percussion against the warping watery synths on 'Sticks And Stones' it feels a little like a tUnE-yArDs b-side, but at least it's got a weird loping progression that works with the synth. 'Magic' is even better courtesy of the tight bassy beat, tight multi-tracking, and hints of actual guitar, a similar factor that works for the very late-90s 'Palaces', except with much blockier tones. And on the topic of Goldfrapp, the slightly hollow elegance of the tones on 'Pipe Dreams' coupled with Furtado's richer cooing actually nails the ambient tones they couldn't make interesting on Silver Eye. The track that attracts the majority of my attention was actually 'Tap Dancing', which was actually cowritten by country artist Natalie Hemby who dropped one of the best indie country records of this year - and yeah, the slightly more soulful touches in the multi-tracked vocals and plucky melody line against the thicker synth makes it an interesting listen, if not quite a great one. And it's reflective of the fact that when this record steps towards more mature piano ballad territory, the production tends to be restrained enough to not get in the way, in comparison with the shrill squonk of 'Live' or the throwback to earlier records on 'Right Road' that wasn't nearly organic enough to stick the landing.

And this takes us to the writing, and the assertion that I'm not sure Nelly Furtado is playing to her strengths. Having gone back through her entire discography, she's not exactly a bad writer from a technical standpoint, but I always get the feeling that she doesn't trust the audience to follow her metaphors - which is bizarre, because it's not like she's doing much more in terms of poetry or nuance than many of her contemporaries. And that can be more than a little distracting on The Ride and going into indie pop, because the writiing simply does not match the greater complexity and weirdness of the production. Take 'Carnival Games' - not a bad idea to compare the flashy distractions of life that might provide an adrenaline rush but ultimately not satisfy, but instead of tying the metaphor back to the pop music scene or relationships, it seems to hang in isolation, a thought experiment that doesn't stick the landing. The closer 'Phoenix' tries a little harder to stick the landing in a rebirth and recovery story, but it's also the most bog-standard metaphor you can get... which you can also say for 'Sticks And Stones' and 'Pipe Dreams' or 'Flatline' - hell, in the last case the break-up seems to nearly kill her, and direct exaggeration doesn't suck me into the song. Now don't get me wrong, directness can be a huge asset, and I do like 'Sticks And Stones' and 'Pipe Dreams' on some level, but there is a lack of sophistication in some of the writing that doesn't reflect a lot of progression since her mainstream heyday. Hell, even though I really like 'Magic' it does have a bit of that underlying immaturity, where she's yearning for an old flame who has settled down and got his life in order where she's just not there yet despite trying - which could have had a little more weight if it was remotely self-aware. That's why 'Tap Dancing' actually works for me - yeah, the metaphor is beaten into the ground, but the exhaustion that comes with constantly putting on a show to meet your partner's expectations when she shouldn't have to, that comes with real life experience, it works.

But as a whole... I have no idea how fans of Nelly Furtado are going to receive this record, because I'd make the argument it doesn't really come together despite some good songs. It's well-produced for what it is, but it's also clunky and less organic than some fans will expect, and yet the writing doesn't rise to the level of complexity or even weirdness to match her indie pop contemporaries. And if you are more familiar with this genre, it's not like Nelly Furtado is doing anything St. Vincent doesn't do better, she's not exactly pushing boundaries or delivering top-of-the-line hooks. Again, I don't think this album plays to her strengths - give her organic grooves to ride against and assert real confidence, maybe even more towards the mainstream or even hip-hop - I'm not talking about trap beats, but maybe opposite the smoother guys who likes more organic tones like a Joey Bada$$ or Anderson .Paak and I could see real chemistry there. But The Ride for me is a solid 6/10 and a recommendation if you're curious, especially if you're a fan who is looking for her to make more challenging material. In fact, this record does fill one niche: if you're looking for a gateway or transitional act between mainstream 2000s-era pop and the weirder stuff, The Ride is probably for you - check it out.

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