Listening to: Seal, Soul

Seal Soul

A review of Seal’s Soul (2008)

At the beginning of his classic track “Killer,” Seal says, “It’s the loneliness that’s the killer.” And maybe that’s just it: after you marry a supermodel and get her to duet with you on your CD (“Wedding Day” on System, 2007), even if it’s quite a good song, the critics just don’t take you seriously anymore, nevermind what you try next.

Witness the tepid critical reception of what Seal tried next, Soul. The record is an hommage to classic soul music – it boldly and unashamedly soldiers through the well-known territory of “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Stand by Me” and “People Get Ready.” To make things even more complicated for the critics, it’s produced by David Foster. Here are some excerpts from the web:

Is this album really necessary? Well, life is really no better or worse after listening to Soul. It’s a rather innocuous collection. (From Popmatters)

The problem with most of these songbook albums – Soul included – is that in choosing such memorable tunes, Seal inevitably invites comparisons to originals few can hope to transcend. Unless you do something radically different–see Cat Powers’ inventive Jukebox (Matador) from last winter–you risk sounding like a sub-par imitation. (From VIBE)

But the songs he has chosen […] have been reinterpreted so many thousands of times, he’d have to reinvent them to get anyone to pay attention, and the only thing new that Seal brings to the party is a feeling of swank Euro-sophistication that saps the music of much of its emotional oomph. Soul is an unnecessary record. (From Rolling Stone)

In a way, this is what a modern music critic would have to say, of course. We’ve been conditioned to expect that covers – at the very least – have to be unusual to pay them any attention. And covers sung by an artist whose prime, supposedly, is behind him… well, that’s borderline unforgivable!

The truth, of course, is much different. This is a very beautiful record. The overall sound is nothing short of remarkable – this is studio perfection without being dull, full of everything Pro Tools has to offer, but completely ‘straight up’: unlike, say, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, which deliberately shows its hip hop production values and thus overlays its glistening sheen with some ‘old school’ grit, Soul uses the entire arsenal of digital music making in the interest of sounding realistic. Of course, it’s not true: while there are undoubtedly many musicians here playing real instruments, there are – probably – as many virtual instruments. The amazing thing is, it sounds real, even though you know it can’t be, at least not completely. It’s like that moment in animated movies – Shrek, maybe, or Monsters Inc., when you noticed, “They can animate individual hairs now. Wow.”

Seal’s vocals are superb throughout. He’s an excellent soul singer, in the same way that Annie Lennox is, for example. There’s a very slight artifice in his interpretation of these songs – correctly identified in the quote from Rolling Stone – that I think is due to his non-American roots. He’s not Sam Cooke, but then, nobody is.

I think the key to refuting the critical consensus here is to say that these songs deserve to be sung. Sung in ways that don’t make travesties of the original, classic arrangements by insisting on reinterpreting them for the umpteenth time. Jazz has an expectation where great singers must put their own spin, their own personal take on a song. Pop doesn’t have the same paradigm, or at least not in exactly the same way. It’s been quite acceptable to produce loving, detailed versions of songs that are, in some essential way, the same as the original. Sometimes, surprisingly, the constraints of performing a song using the same arrangement as the original has brought out something decidedly great. Listen, for example, to the Neville Brothers’ version of “A Change is Gonna Come.” Daniel Lanois’ sleepy arrangement can hardly be called a new interpretation – all it does is strip away some of Cooke’s strings and replaces them with more guitars and synth pads. Yet Aaron’s voice makes it into a very different song.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Seal achieves quite the same heights of expressiveness in his version. But it’s more than merely respectable – it’s a very good version. And his “It’s Alright” is amazing, as are “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “People Get Ready,” which comes across as truly heartfelt rendition that has something new to say.

I think, it’s enough – no more than enough: amazing – to hear a great voice perform emotionally accurate, heartfelt, inspired renditions of great material. If it’s tastefully produced by one of the industry’s leading lights, that’s a bonus. Since classic R&B essentially ceased to exist as an alive genre in the 1970s, any ‘new’ releases in this mode have been aimed at a rock audience and had more rock ‘grit’ than is organic to the form. Seal’s Soul simply restores the strings, horns and background vocals to their rightful place.

I’m going to take a contrarian position: I recommend this.

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