Marisa Monte has always been a heavy hitter in Brazilian music, both in Brazil itself and around the world. For more than two decades, she has managed to keep herself on everyone’s hearts and minds while morphing from pop star to alt.folk artist to big hitmaker (her 2002 Tribalistas project with Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown sold more than 2 million copies worldwide) and back again.
She hasn’t been heard from since 2006, when she released Universo ao Meu Redor and Infinito Particular, a twin set of lovely but airless records that didn’t fly quite as high as Tribalistas. This new set is a solo record, but she has gone back to work with Antunes and Brown, both of whom co-write material with her here but are not really part of the performing ensemble. (Okay, Antunes does his croaking semi-singing thing a couple times on the forró song “Hoje Eu Não Saio Não”, but that’s it.) It seems a particularly conservative move by Monte.
But damn, it pays off. Her artistic vision remains as gritty and vital as ever, but somehow her melodies have gotten even more beautiful; “Amar Alguém” and the title track stick in the head more than anything from the last two records, and the stunning “Ainda Bem” just absolutely floats. Her opera-trained but street-sharpened voice has lost none of its clarity and sweetness.
Yet what sets this album apart is its texture, its feel. The second track, a snaky remake of Jorge Ben Jor’s “Descalço no Parque”, adds new sounds every four bars, from subtle percussion to whispery synths from P-Funk legend Bernie Worrell (an old friend and collaborator) to romantic strings. It almost doesn’t seem to exist when it’s playing, but the interplay of all these elements — and Domenico Lancellotti’s lovely propulsive drumming — stays in the memory for days.
Even the layers here have layers. Monte takes on “Lencinho Querido”, a 100-year-old tango that became huge in Brazil in 1920; it hit the charts again in 1956 when it was covered by Dalva de Oliveira, one of the most famous and beloved Brazilian singers of all time. Monte has a touch of fun with all this history by nailing the vocal but adding touches of her own, both modernist (mariachi horns!) and postmodernist (Worrell screwing around on the keyboards again). It’s all a little dizzying at first, but not on the second listen, or the tenth, or whatever I’m on now. Dozens, at least.
It’s tempting to salute co-producer Dadi for the increased focus on musical depth. After all, he shows up on just about every track, playing every instrument one can name. But let’s just actually give it up for Marisa Monte, for her apparent realization that she could gain a lot more freedom by giving up a little bit of control.
Some Brazilians have criticized the simplistic lyrics here as trite, and are appalled by the apparent conservatism on display. I’d like to be just as horrified by this, but I’m too busy being in love with an album to worry about whether I love it for the right reasons or not. Top marks.