[16 October 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Oh, the curious case of Nelly Furtado. After bursting on the scene in 2000 with Whoa, Nelly!, a collection of folk-leaning pop music that combined the wholesome notion of flying like a bird with the abrasive nature of claiming that there is noting but shit on the radio, Furtado up and did a 180 by ditching the hippie sandals for high-heeled glam with 200’‘s Loose. It was somewhat of an odd move—essentially mortgaging her future by hooking up with Timbaland to embark on a journey aimed at capitalizing more on sexuality than purity. Chants of “sell out!” rung through the popular music-buying public’s lexicon as the oh-so-fine line between naming something “Turn Off The Light” and naming something “Promiscuous” was crossed, and the same listeners who once lauded the singer for her original blend of worldly pop-hop immediately cried foul, exiling Furtado to full-blown Pop Land, a country infamous for chewing up and spitting out artists quicker than Hip Land, an equally-as-fickle corridor.
And now, we have this, The Spirit Indestructible, a 12-song collection (18, if you want to go deluxe) of blatantly accessible dance pop that is precisely as far from the Whoa, Nelly! days as Timbaland is from a banjo. It’s not all bad, of course—if you prefer your sugar with a side of C-rate bounce, there are things here with which you most certainly could spend your Saturday nights—though the issue at hand proves to run far deeper than some failed pop music experiments. The problem isn’t that Furtado is perceived as an artist who gave up her acoustic guitar for an extension on her 15 minutes atop Pop Music Mountain anymore than it is that the singer is now more than willing to concede that she was never anything other than a thin-voiced, makeup-blotched starlet who talks about how bigger always equals better.
But that’s what we’ve been given with this set. Single “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)” is a fine-enough attempt at getting heavy rotation in college town bars that turn into dance clubs by sundown, but it succumbs to the all-too-aparent notion that Rodney Jerkins is unfortunately no Timbaland. A capable alternative who certainly has the résumé to prove his relevance? Yes. A Nelly Furtado collaborator who can actually push the singer back into the Lady Gaga-cum-Carly Rae stratosphere? No. The underwhelming production is accentuated as the artist goes full-on Rihanna, a move that comes about five years too late for someone as established as Furtado. Her decision to try and shy away from any vocal chops she may have in favor of the modern-day thinness of most female pop star smashes isn’t just a fairly cheap misstep, but it’s also an indicator of how hungry the woman is for another hit.
“Parking Lot”, meanwhile, feels like a prequel to “Hollaback Girl”, without the Gwen, and without the imagination. Heavy on bass and drums (and fully equipped with clapping sounds as a front-beat), Furtado’s performance seems lazy and apathetic, not focused and enthusiastic. “Waiting For The Night” sounds a lot like you may think a song named “Waiting For The Night” may sound. The tribal groove echoes a 10-year-old Jennifer Lopez hit, though because of how outdated such a formula is in today’s EDM-filled universe, the whole thing never crosses into the accessibly endearing Top 40 orbit for which it longs.
Even so, there are highlights, however few and far between they may seem. Nas has been on fire recently, and he continues that winning streak when he stops by on “Something”, a minimal club-ready jam that affords Furtado some much-needed wordplay credibility. “Don’t Leave Me,” available on only the deluxe edition, is the best the set gets, as the singer moves away from the predictable pop and dives in, headfirst, to roots reggae. Her vocal abilities shine here, and her emphasis on emoting proves to be a stark contrast to the bland nature of the tunes that surround this bonus track.
In fact, the strength of “Don’t Leave Me” could even be perceived as a detriment to the album as a whole, because comparing its sincerity with the rest of its contemporaries leaves any listener with a feeling of disappointment. Take the title track, for instance, which might serve as one of the worst pop songs of the year, Furtado’s deceptively flat vocal performance paving the way for such distinction. “Bucket List” has a shot at garnering attention with its acoustic guitar driven melody, though the song can’t seem to break out into the strikingly powerful chorus it needs in order to be rendered complete.
Thus, it needs to be asked: Is Nelly Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible the product of a rushed approach aimed at reminding the world that the Canadian songstress is still writing music? Maybe, though that label was far more justified with 2010’s The Best Of Nelly Furtado, a “hey, don’t forget about me!” moment if there ever was one. The problem? It appears as though too many people actually have already shuffled Nelly Furtado back into the dismissed depths of their musical consciousness (word has it that this album sold a preposterous 6,000 copies during its first week on U.S. shelves, which, even by today’s standards, is almost impossible to swallow).
Is she a sell out? Not anymore, even if some may think she truly was such a thing however many years ago. Is she capable? Of course she is—you don’t get to have multiple Top 40 singles throughout your career if you don’t have even the slightest amount of skill tucked away somewhere behind those gorgeous blue eyes. But is she still able to produce some highly entertaining, somewhat quirky pop music that appeals to more than just a few 20-somethings who insist on drinking alcoholic drinks with Red Bull in them and dancing until someone, somewhere becomes attractive enough to approach?
That’s the problem that makes The Spirit Indestructible so deflating. Because if an answer was ever to be based on these 12 songs alone, it would inevitably be “no.” And for an artist who started a career in music so promisingly, such an outcome is not only sad, but it’s also cautionary.
There’s talent here, that’s for sure. But despite how many times you couldn’t resist tapping your toe to “Maneater” five years ago, that talent ultimately needs to end up as far away from the dance floor as it can get.