Music

Bilal: A Love Surreal

After the personal catharsis of Airtight's Revenge, Bilal's back with a lighter, tighter, more romantic affair that bridges the gap between his experimental and lover sides.


Bilal

A Love Surreal

Label: eOne
US Release Date: 2013-02-26
UK Release Date: Import
Label website
Artist website
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It's possible A Love Surreal couldn't have come at a better time (though first-month sales appear to argue otherwise...) as more eyes are on the R&B field than they have been in years thanks to buzz acts Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Miguel. Much like those artists, A Love Surreal is an album that eschews the typical trends of radio-focused R&B, opting instead for threads of psychedelia (see: Bilal's DMT-style vocal meandering on "Climbing"), throwback mixing ("West Side Girl", "Never Be the Same") and subtler lyricism that doesn't rely so much on absolutes and alcohol.

Much of A Love Surreal's sound can also be traced back to Los Angeles collectives SomeOthaShip and Brainfeeder. The Brainfeeder connection is fairly obvious thanks to Thundercat's bass instantly giving the Princely "West Side Girl" a taste of Cosmogramma on the side. But oftentimes A Love Surreal also has a feel as though Georgia Anne Muldrow replaced her MPC with a full-time band, Bilal's performance is filled with the same brand of spiritual and physical lust that trademark's Georgia's material.

Mix all that in with what Bilal himself brings to the table and you've got easily his most musically diverse offering. "Back to Love" could practically be an Anthony Hamilton ballad if it weren't for the stabbing, driving guitar and bass that gives the song more in common with, say, Gang of Four than typical love ballads. "Right at the Core" is a straight up meditation piece, with Bilal whispering as much as singing for much of the song, revealing that a restrained Bilal sounds just as beautiful. "Slipping Away" feels like entering Oliver Stone's mind for six minutes, trapped in a stoned, fiery sex scene between Val Kilmer and Juliette Lewis, a feeling contrasted by Bilal's lyrics of heartbreak.

Perhaps "Lost for Now" is the oddest inclusion here. It's certainly the biggest surprise. You could play that song for any Bilal listener and I'd bet they'd need the entire runtime to guess who performed it as it's essentially a mid-'90s pop rock slowburn. Lyrically and melodically it's not far off from the kind of ballad the Foo Fighters are huge proponents of; for a Bilal album that's weird. But within Bilal's personal history, hearing him sing "you got a smile that changes everything / can you smile one time?" just makes the heart flutter and goosebumps proliferate. It may take a while to enjoy this song, but that's this album's one loose-fitting moment. If any of that worries you, just skip ahead to "Never Be the Same" where an Al Green impression is waiting patiently, lovingly.

Unlike 1st Born Second, which many (including myself, I'll add) will probably hold onto forever as Bilal's pinnacle, A Love Surreal ultimately feels like an album completely unencumbered by expectations. There's no comeback monkey on his back, no Soulquarians reputation to uphold and truthfully no fanbase of widespread enough import that he needs to be worried what they're anticipating. As such, A Love Surreal is in many ways Bilal's most laid back, comfortable affair. Without ever taking a bite, Bilal lets the dangling apple of retroism co-opted by fellows like R. Kelly, Justin Timberlake and Raphael Saadiq without allowing it to co-opt him in the process. It's a soul singer making rock music because Bilal remembers a time when that was a fair expectation to have, before albums like his debut forever blurred the lines between rapping and throwing some stank on it.

If I managed to write a review that failed to mention "Butterfly", it'd be a failure. Those who've heard 1st Born Second will recall "Second Child", the free jazz closing number that featured Bilal on vocals and Glasper on piano essentially having a fistfight in your speakers. "Butterfly" is not only the highlight of this album but it also feels like a reaction to that. Where "Second Child" came to portend all the calamity in his personal life the past decade, "Butterfly" hopes for renewal. "Butterfly, the struggle makes you beautiful / The struggle makes you fly" he sings to himself as Boards of Canada pads and Glasper's Ahmad Jamal-derived glinting keys provide an atmosphere worthy of reanimation.

In a very exciting year for R&B, Bilal's very quickly made the race for album of the year an incredibly competitive one (that is, assuming you're willing to classify this as R&B...I might not be, but I'm no member of the Recording Academy). A Love Surreal probably doesn't have what 1st Born Second fanatics want out of the guy, but it's plenty beautiful on its own terms.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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