Sealhenry Samuel has always been a little bit out of his time. He writes folk songs, belts them out like a penniless soul singer, and then has Trevor Horn produce them, guaranteeing that by the time Horn is finished with them, they will sound absolutely nothing like either folk or soul. His songs are passionate and deeply heartfelt, yet hits the music scene in 1990, one of the most soulless years in pop music history. He frequently does a dance step known as the Kate Bush, dropping off the map for years at a time to record his next album. (Back then, this was considered a long time; nowadays, it’s standard operating procedure.) It is not your standard guide to success in the music business.
But in 1995, a year after the release of his second album, Seal became a superstar. On the wings of a medieval ballad. At the height of grunge. The man is the textbook definition of the road less traveled.
That is not to say his career doesn’t also dabble in cliché. After he earned Grammys galore for “Kiss From a Rose”, the aforementioned medieval ballad, he spent another four years recording Human Being, which was a tuneless mess. All of the good will he had behind him was starting to slip away. Another artist of untold promise, burned out before his time. Or so it seemed.
Four years between hit records is tough. Four years between a hit record and a dud is 10 times worse. Now consider going from a dud record released in 1998 to a “comeback” album today. Oh, how the world has changed. Now he has to deal with Justin/Britney/Xtina, thug rap, whiner metal, ClearChannel, and the RIAA suing its own customers. There isn’t a chance in hell anyone is going to hear this record.
Which is a shame, because the soulful Seal IV is actually much better than one would expect from an artist whose last decent album is now nine years old. At the same time, something about it is off; for the first time, Seal is not merely outside his time (good), but behind it (bad). If only someone had introduced him to the Neptunes.
He tries to get the party started with “Get It Together”, a soul-inspired disco number with a good hook but no real high-energy payoff. It may be catchy, but it can’t fill a dance floor, coming off like dance music for people who don’t dance anymore. The same thing happens with “Waiting For You”, a horn drenched R&B nugget with a far too passive rhythm track. He drops the phrase ‘shining star’ in a verse, and it clearly sounds like he’s been grooving to some Earth, Wind & Fire lately. But Horn’s production, for the first time in his work with Seal, is holding him back, grounding songs that should be flying.
“My Vision” is as close to vintage Seal as the album gets, containing the hook and the drive that made his debut so irresistible. “Don’t Make Me Wait”, on the other hand, is the first real soul song Seal’s ever done, ironic for a man who is practically the dictionary definition of the soul. It is in this context that Horn’s production makes the most sense, filling the chorus with quick, sharp orchestration and a stately drum track. Likewise, “Where There’s Gold” shows Seal branching out into reggae, a style so obvious it’s a mystery why he hasn’t done it before now. His Shaggy-style riffing (or is it Shabba Ranks?) before the second chorus is an amusing showing of propers.
So Seal is back, in a sense. The tunes are there, which is certainly more than can be said for his last outing. But someone should have hijacked the mixing board and given these songs the punch they so richly deserve. Seal’s first album was so great because it sounded like nothing else out there. But the combination of pop music getting harder while Seal gets softer makes Seal IV sound more antiquated than it should. What some enterprising mixmaster out there should do is take these songs and mash them with the beats from Kenna’s album New Sacred Cow (produced, natch, by one of the Neptunes). Those beats, with these songs, would have created something otherworldly. Maybe next time, and hopefully not four-years-from-now next time.