Impressions of Sound: the Thinness of Thicke
Impressionism is most often thought of as a 19th century movement in painting where artists revolted against traditional representational styles in order to paint things as they appeared to them at the moment. Allied to scientific movements interested in nature and light, impressionist painters like Monet and Cezanne rejected solid lines, and instead wanted to evoke feelings, or impressions, with their pieces. Impressionism in those days was a revolt; today, in art museums, to the common onlooker, it means a painting you have to experience at a distance to really see. Up close, it just looks like a bunch of messy dots.
Little did this reviewer know, prior to hearing Thicke‘s debut, A Beautiful World, that this layman’s view of impressionism also exists in the world of music. Indeed, there is such a thing as an album that sounds decent when experienced at a distance, but which crumbles under close analysis; an album which looks good on the surface but up close is only a semblance of the real thing. Though, unlike the painters in their day, this impressionist music is not a revolt, but its opposite: a pandering to the tired obsolescence of mushy, radio-friendly, R&B-revved pop drivel. Thicke himself is cut of the same cloth that has woven a career out of the likes of Kelly Clarkson—the stuff which says that anyone with a melisma and a couple of Michael Jackson records deserves a record contract.
Granted, Thicke has a lot more going for him than any of those Americans we now Idol-ize. He’s the son of Alan Thicke, of Growing Pains fame, which has the ideal level of intrigue: curious enough to warrant publicity, but not enough to say that he’s just riding the coattails of his father’s fame (though dad did pen the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes). He’s got a pretty decent voice, like a man who’s sang along to Songs in the Key of Life and 1999countless times, and Andre Harrell (President of Bad Boy Entertainment) in his corner. He’s written hits for Brandy and Christina Aguilera and is a notable producer in his own right. And thanks to the blue-eyed soul craze catalyzed by Justin Timberlake, he’s got some hype to help him along.
But beyond this, there’s no soul behind those blue eyes, just some boring beats and worse lyrics. Beyond the occasional glimmer of highly infectious pop puffery (“When I Get You Alone” is a case in point), the songs are dull, or embarrassing, or worse. Moreover, regardless of the song, this is not an album you want to listen hard to. If you do, you’re sure to chortle during moments that are supposed to be tender, choke during moments that are supposed to be chill, and turn the damn thing off before it’s even half over.
To be kind, I’ll focus on the album’s highlights first. When the album shines, it’s during the up-pace jams, that at their best are infested with just enough ‘70s soul and early ‘80s R&B germs that they spread like a disease. These historical roots are updated with contemporary loops and the hard-hitting, dance-friendly beats that bubblegum pop have made requisite in Top 40 aspirants. The get-down of “Brand New Jones”, for instance, is warm and listenable, dressed up pleasantly with hand claps and funky guitar twitters. Thicke falsettos his way through a catchy “I’m a Be Alright”, breaking into a generally convincing Prince-style plead midway. Plus, the aforementioned single, “When I Get You Alone”, with its Beethoven sample and hell-or-high-water singing, is sheer fun, the stuff that club favorites are made of.
But any of these strong points also harbors its own Achilles Heel. Take, for instance, the for-shit lyrics of “When I Get You Alone”, which might not matter much in the dancehall, but which might cause an accident when turned up in the car stereo. (“Baby girl, you the shit / that makes you my equivalent”—I mean, come on.) All the labor Thicke pours into his vocals—trying to go to church, raise the roof, take us back, or whateva—after a while becomes a played-out disguise for what is often a thin, nasal, and simply annoying voice. And then, to top this, there are the lesser songs. Take “Flex”: it begins with a seriously comical guitar twitch, which, were this a They Might Be Giants album, would be an incredible onomatopoeic joke. Sadly, however, this little trick repeats itself over the course of the song, as Thicke croons theatrically through filtered mics, behind overcharged sirens, guitar callouts, etc. Why so much fanfare for so little intrigue, I do not know. But by the end of the song, he sounds exhausted, and I’m just plain bored.
“Vengas Conmigo” is the now-predictably Latin-inspired song—which an observer might realize sounds more like Steely Dan than Tito Puente—and comes off as an attempted crossover artist’s attempt at still further crossover rather than an honest stab at diversity. In fact, the entire album feels like it’s in an uncomfortable language. Perhaps Thicke bears an unjust burden of proof being a white artist in this genre, songs titled things like “She’s Gangsta” or “I’m a Be Alright”. But I’ll venture to say that it’s not his race that makes these things ridiculous—it’s that they, like his voice in too many places, like the glimmers of soul that flicker through the album, more often than not seem forced. This album demonstrates not only a lack of ability, but a lack of heart.
More than being a bad album, A Beautiful World will make you feel just plain bad about the state of popular music. It’s albums like this that have stodgy rock critics complaining that music ain’t as good as it used to be; that convince you that talent hardly matters as much as who you know, who your daddy is, and how much money you have in your trust fund. This album will convince you that songwriting is dead, that the last people who had the funk were in Parliament, and that you should go home, get a bottle of Jack Daniels, and wait for the end. If hell exists and the Devil is waiting, he’s probably listening to Thicke. And, so help you, if you must, for fear of death, suffer through the Thicke record, turn the volume down. The further you are away from it, the better.