Paloma Faith: A Perfect Contradiction

[21 August 2014]

By David Farrell

Three albums into her career and Paloma Faith is only just starting to realize her full potential. She has somehow managed to have two multi-platinum albums in the UK while still being overshadowed by her peers Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele. It’s not that she hasn’t been evolving with each album, the problem is that there have always been people doing the same thing with better results. However, as Amy Winehouse is no longer with us, Duffy has disappeared into thin air and Adele is still on her seemingly unending hiatus, the question is whether Paloma has allowed herself to grow into the world-dominating artist she always had the potential to be?

The answer is neither yes nor no, but somewhere in between. A Perfect Contradiction certainly showcases a more radio friendly side to the London-born songstress which has been yielding fruit in the commercial sense. Paloma has never been a singles artist, only managing to notch up one UK top ten single previously with “Picking Up the Pieces”, but it seems that the tide has turned for this album campaign as she has managed to bag two consecutive top tens. This includes her biggest hit to date, the Diane Warren-penned “Only Love Can Hurt Like This”, which just reached No.1 in Australia, proving her heightened commercial appeal.

However, despite the improvements, it still doesn’t sound like Paloma has found a sound which she is completely comfortable with yet. Her new style draws almost exclusively from ‘70s style R&B and soul disco but fails to update the sound or do anything new with it. The only song on the album which couldn’t have come from a forgotten Diana Ross album is, ironically, the Pharrell-produced “Can’t Rely on You”, and that has already been called a rip-off of “Blurred Lines”. Still, there is evidence of Faith honing her musical sensibilities. The songwriting is more polished and smart, while her performance is more nuanced in comparison to 2012’s Fall to Grace, which saw Faith getting bogged down with her own overwrought histrionics in a sea of balladry. The problem was that she was so desperate to prove her soul street credibility that she filled her album with tragic ballads, making the release difficult to listen to in full and somewhat diluting its potency.

Luckily, her experimentation has hit upon a good balance this time around and, as a result, her latest studio album is undoubtedly her most upbeat effort to date. This means that the big cinematic moments on A Perfect Contradiction, like “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” and “The Bigger the Love (The Harder You Fall)”, can be fully appreciated by the listener. Even better, Faith has had the good sense to stick most of the wailing at the end of the album (ahem…. “Love Only Leaves You Lonely”). That one’s only for the initiated Paloma fans.

Actually, Paloma Faith deserves to be commended for daring to bring back a sound which hasn’t been popular in 40 years and making it mainstream. The disco influences on A Perfect Contradiction add another string to her bow and the instrumental experimentation makes for an interesting listen. Artists can easily be overwhelmed by tracks like “Trouble with My Baby”, which demands a powerful vocal in order to compete with the overpowering brass accompaniment. Faith, however, thrives off the challenge and always manages to bring her bubbly personality to every song. People may have accused her of selling out and losing her individuality with “Can’t Rely on You”, but her fierce delivery and sassy vocal inflections stamp the name “Paloma” in block capitals all over the track.

The truth is that the drama is just as much a part of Paloma’s act as the singing. She performs with the theatrical sense of a tragic heroine which means that, of course, big ballads do shine the brightest of all. The indisputable highlight of A Perfect Contradiction is the cinematic ballad “Only Love Can Hurt Like This”, which allows us a brief, stolen glimpse of the dizzy heights that Paloma is capable of. The slow-burning tension grows with each chorus and Faith uses her melodramatic tendencies to full effect, building into a soaring crescendo to end all crescendos. The doo-wop style of “Taste My Own Tears” sounds like something that could have come from Grease or Hairspray. In fact, Paloma herself wouldn’t sound out of place as the lead in a Broadway musical. Perhaps she missed her calling.

That’s not to say, however, that the upbeat songs aren’t worth listening to. “Can’t Rely on You” demonstrates that scorn goes extremely well with retro soul funk and a good dose of cowbell, while “Trouble With My Baby” boasts an urgent disco vibe chivvied along by trumpets and saxophones. “Mouth to Mouth” sees Paloma doing her best Donna Summer impression, which she manages to pull off due to her sincerity and passion. In fact, there is not really any filler on A Perfect Contradiction and it never manages to be boring (Paloma would never allow that). However, it does leave you wanting more and expecting more from Paloma’s next album. The musicality is evident, the big voice is there and the songwriting is coming along nicely. Paloma Faith has the potential to be one of the biggest pop stars in the world and several tracks on A Perfect Contradiction suggest that she is finally on her way to finding her groove.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184487-paloma-faith-a-perfect-contradiction/