Wednesday, December 6, 2017

album review: 'war & leisure' by miguel

So I have a hard time writing about an artist like Miguel, mostly because as a critic I like categorization, finding a way to place an act in the context of their genre. And while you might have been able to do that early on with records like Kaleidoscope Dream, in that like acts like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd he was digging into new sounds and tones within R&B in order to expand the genre. But their paths diverged very quickly: The Weeknd harnessed his love of 80s pop to attain crossover success, Frank Ocean found a ramshackle yet powerfully organic and spacious sound to win critical acclaim, and Miguel...

Well, in 2015 he released Wildheart, an album that I definitely praised upon its release for its genre-bending and grand, emotive ambition in capturing a specific Prince-inspired, oversexed, hyperstylized mood... but it was also all over the place and it hasn't exactly aged as well as you might think, feeling less and less cohesive in its tangled blur of sounds and without a lot of tighter writing to back it up. I'd definitely argue it's a good album and I really did love how far Miguel was willing to push his material, but in the wake of Frank Ocean's blonde it was an album where the high points might resonate but the weaknesses in contrast glare all the more strongly. And as such I didn't really know where he was going to take his follow-up this year War & Leisure - reportedly it was trending towards psychedelic funk, but he also had names like J. Cole, Travis Scott and Rick Ross as features, and it looked like this was going to be a slightly more grounded affair... which might not be a bad thing, because Miguel is the sort of artist with effortless charisma who could knock that material out in his sleep. So yeah, I definitely wanted to cover, this, so what did I find on War & Leisure?

So here's the thing: with every listen through War & Leisure I get the impression there was a great deal more focus on the second word in that title than anything else for a more languid, relaxed affair than Wildheart. And on the surface that doesn't exactly seem like a bad idea: Miguel is a natural fit for this material, his sound does feel slightly more cohesive this time around, and there's nothing wrong with a more lightweight record, even if you could make the argument it probably should have been dropped in early August instead of early December... and yet I found myself not quite as gripped by this record as I wanted to be.

And that's frustrating because Miguel is an incredibly compelling performer as a singer. I've said this before, but where so many R&B-adjacent acts might make songs about sex, Miguel actually makes it seem like he's enjoying it and wants you to enjoy it too. That sort of infectious charisma and atmosphere can make up for a lot - hell, it's often the biggest reason why he can tread into cornier territory with his lyrics and get away with a lot of it. I've already talked about him 'Luke Skywalkin' on the haters' on 'Sky Walker' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but the best example of his sheer joy comes on the previous track 'Pineapple Skies' - sure, it's a song that interpolates 'Sexual Healing', but it's one of the few songs that can capture the same magnetism as the original while still feeling fresh.

Of course, a lot of this all depends on the production and instrumentation to support that loose, supple feel and capture that sense of vibrant fun... and it's where I feel a little torn on this record. One thing I will give the best songs of Wildheart is a sense of momentum and propulsion - tighter grooves, crescendos, tracks like 'Coffee' that had a slow burn but had a solid anchor point. War & Leisure plays things a little more languid and relaxed - except of course for tracks like 'Banana Clip' and 'Told You So' which are clearly channeling their Prince influence in the 80s-inspired synth and bass grooves - more content to ease back in a smoky mix punctuated by psychedelic guitar tones and slightly rougher drums around the bassy rumbles. And this can turn out pretty decently: I liked the darker lounge cadence behind 'Wolf', some of the smolder of 'City Of Angels' does build well, I dig the liquid touches of guitar in the keening depths of 'Now', and the gentle acoustic loop playing off the rounded bass and deeper tap on 'Come Through And Chill' was pretty relaxed, even if I'm a little mixed on J. Cole's verse, mostly as he comes across a shade too desperate to win this girl's attention while in town and still manages to cram in political references rather awkwardly. And I really do appreciate a lot of the organic depth to these tunes... even if I do feel like some of them can run together or get lost in their own smolder. Part of this is a production issue - for as clear and potent as Miguel can be as a singer I'm a little baffled why so many songs choose not to place him center stage, instead pulling him a little deeper into the murk than they probably should, and while Travis Scott might need Autotune or added vocal effects, Miguel certainly doesn't. And it doesn't help the issue of momentum, or the feeling that the tones don't really take on the same intensity or spark or darkness that characterized Wildheart, or in the cases of the pitch-shifting on 'Harem' and 'Told You So' or even some of the more rubbery synth tones, they feel like modern concessions that can feel distracting to the overall tune.

But as I said in the Wildheart review, the real point of contention I've had with Miguel is content - and for this record, the bar is not high, the majority of these tracks are hookup jams drenched in psychedelic fuzz, and I've got a high tolerance for things getting a little silly... and man alive, Miguel is pushing it. Right from the opening track he compares his own instability to that of Columbine as he hunts for a girl to match him, and a few songs later on 'Banana Clip' he brings in more imagery of war and guns and missiles and an arsenal that is 90% phallic symbol! Then we get to 'Wolf' which plays the werewolf-as-dude-on-the-prowl metaphor and while Miguel can sell it better than, say, Adam Levine on 'Animals', it is just as ridiculous. But that's the weird part about this record: it wants to evoke apocalyptic imagery and war and cast his love stories in their shadow - which doesn't play out well on 'Told You So' which plays as a scold saying he told her so, or on 'City Of Angels', where in a hypothetical future where L.A. is destroyed by bombs, he was off cheating on his girl at Venice Beach! But then you place this all in juxtaposition with songs around it like 'Harem' - an undercooked invitation for a prospective girl - or 'Caramelo Duro' which is your standard sex & candy song, and the connective tissue behind any larger theme feels thin. Which would be fine - this is intended to be a looser, more fun record... except then you bookend it with 'Now', a song that's pretty explicitly political in targeting the current president with broad strokes that don't really add much beyond pleas for common ground - potent, sure, but it's coming after a song where Miguel's girl makes him feel like a god when they're having sex.

No, what this record reminds me of in a lot of its tones and content is a psychedelic soul or rock record from the mid-to-late 60s - political in some of its reference points, but ultimately loose and scattershot and more focused on getting high and making love. And again, there is definitely a place for that sort of content, and Miguel does a hell of a job making it sound appealing, no matter how goofy some of the lyrics can be. But at the same time... again, despite good vibes I'm not really as drawn to these hooks or compositions as I'd like to be, and not even Miguel can make some of these references sound that cool. So yeah, as much as I'd love to be on board with this, for me it's a strong 6/10 and really only recommended if you're looking for something to just coast on, bathed in retro cool but pretty damn short on substance. But hey, if Miguel was able to tighten things up a bit or inject his lyrics with a little more wit or bite, he could have something here to go against the likes of Frank Ocean or Anderson .Paak, he's certainly got the charisma for it. So hey, going forward, I guess we'll see.

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