Doctors report that birth rates increase one million percent every time listeners hear the sweet voice of Aaron Neville. Okay, I made that up. But it’s difficult to imagine crooning more sensual than his. If some honeyed vocals sound as if butter could melt in the singer’s mouth, Neville’s could melt rocks into lava. It’s that mellifluous. Fifty years after his first number one single, “Tell It Like It Is”, Neville is back recording music in the old funky rhythm and blues style he once helped make popular.
Neville’s voice is easy on the ears, but as the self-penned autobiographical tunes on Apache make clear, this hasn’t always been the case in his life. Interviewing him before a local appearance, Neville discussed his early prison experience as helping change his life. Hard times make its way in such material as “Hard to Believe”, “Stompin’ Ground” and “Make Your Momma Cry”. The honking horn sections here work in counterpoint to the tenderness deep inside the songs. Neville may act tough, but that’s just to hide the hurt.
And his voice has a permanent tear in it. He can’t stop crying, whether he’s happy or sad. The more romantic compositions such as “I Wanna Love You” and “Sarah Ann”, practically sob with happiness. There’s something sexy about the physical expression of such emotions. Neville sounds overcome with feeling—even orgasmic, without having to strain. Like a gentle rain, his voice soothingly cleanses the air.
Then there’s the spiritual side. Songs such as “Heaven” and “Fragile World” suggest that while life on Earth may be hard, there’s a better tomorrow if we want it. Maybe, but these are the least effective songs of the bunch. Neville may be sincere, but he does not sound passionate—the quality that gives the other material such strength. Heck, he might hope to see us all in the afterlife, but his apologies for past behaviors and strictures for the future seem clichéd. The music seems to come from his head rather than his heart. Sure, music can be smart, but there is nothing especially wise here.
Criticizing a musician for not having a better understanding of our shared past and what the future brings seems facile, but Neville brings that on himself for bringing up the topics. When he sticks to truisms about life is hard, love is good, his voice speaks louder than mere words. But despite its gospel underpinnings, songs such as “Heaven” sound perfunctory more than transcendent.
The best cuts, like “Be Your Man”, work best because of the particulars. Everyone understands sexual urges without the need to intellectualize them. Neville’s boasting comes out of love and desire. He’ll be your man whatever it takes. Sure, that means more than just sex but it also means sex. The New Orleans behind him just intensify the urgency.
Neville is 75 years old. One would think he’d be closer to god than he is to the pleasure of the flesh. That’s not the case. And he still remembers and regrets the pain he brought to his mother and to other loved ones when he was younger and more callous. Some things one never gets over until that judgement day comes. Give Aaron Neville an “amen”.
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