Colombian superstar unplugs again, but stuffs his songs with color and hooks, amor and innuendo.
Juanes is one of those single-named pop stars who trots the globe uniting folks through the power of melody. See also Shakira (his Colombian countrywoman), P!nk, Sting, um, Kellyclarkson. You get the idea. Though you can dance to his music -- at least when he employs percussionists to play Latin American rhythms -- he rarely draws from electro-club music like globetrotting single-namers Madonna or Rihanna. No, Juanes makes straight up pop/rock en Español. Cumbia and guasca are but weapons in a musical arsenal that also includes backbeat and big soaring power ballad. When he recently played for the chronic smilers at the Today show, they introduced him in terms any American gringo could understand: numbers. Juanes has millions of Twitter followers and a good handful of #1 Hot Latin hits. Along with Shakira and Carlos Vives, he's one of the three Colombian musicians most visible abroad. He also plays a mean six-string.
If you're one of those millions of fans, you'll like his sixth studio album Loco de Amor. If, like me, you've always wished more Juanes songs succeeded as completely as his signature tune, "A Dios le Pido", you might also like this new album. In the past, songwriter Juanes has doled out his hooks with parsimony, often making listeners sit through so-so verses, even so-so choruses, to reach that one melodic phrase that provides his song's razón de ser. This time around, catchiness is everywhere. First single "La Luz" is basically all hooks -- I count at least four. It's a speedy football stadium chant about kissing in the dark; Juanes's fingers dance across the fretboard in a ceremony of amor and innuendo. Of these 11 songs, it's easy to imagine the first eight getting played on the radio, and time was, eight songs would've made for a perfectly acceptable album. (Despite some expensive sounding cello, the last three songs are not so great, but you can skip 'em.)
What accounts for this improvement? The most noticeable additions are keyboardist Emmanuel del Real, who's in Mexican alt-rock band Café Tacvba, and producer Steve Lillywhite, who's overseen albums for noted singer-songwriter Jared Leto and half the bands on adult album alternative (AAA) radio. Sometimes the team goes for a big production sound, as in the stomping "La Verdad", which layers Juanes's falsetto over synths, handclaps, shaking devices, and an explosion that just sort of appears and then ducks out the door. In "Laberinto", some kind of synth glockenspiel plays along with Juanes's guitar, leaving traces of sparkles in the air. Occasionally there is whooshing. Only Lillywhite and del Real know how they achieved the whooshing.
More often, though, what you hear is what you read in the personnel listing: Juanes on acoustic guitar, Fernando Tobón on tiple (a treble guitar, used here for rhythm and color), plus keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion. Note the acoustic focus. Juanes, a metalhead whose favorite band is Metallica, has long concentrated on his electric playing; his previous studio album P.A.R.C.E. ended with a mini-epic solo. In 2012, "harboring reservations about the direction his career [had] taken" (according to the New York Times), Juanes joined another select pop music club: performers for whom an MTV Unplugged date becomes a career-defining work. Co-produced by the Dominican hitmaker, guitarist, and Christian rocker Juan Luis Guerra, Juanes's unplugged album won the Latin Grammy for Album of the Year. (It's… pretty good. Too many slow songs.) Juanes said at the time, "My pop music is going in another direction now."
If that direction is the colorful Loco de Amor, it's a good one. Juanes's acoustic playing emphasizes rhythm and sounds gorgeous all at once, particularly in showcases like the complex opening chords of "Una Flor", his guitar recorded to sound like the Platonic ideal of pensive opening strums. Sophisticated songwriting, too: Juanes throws an extra unexpected measure into the verses of "Una Flor", a subtle method of making him sound like he's thinking out loud, like Hitchcock adding a stair to build suspense. The band matches him trick for trick. The jumpy title song starts with its beats askew, so you don't immediately know where the accents fall, either a perfect metaphor for crazy love or just a cool effect. Plus, del Real's synth sounds like '80s Genesis. Whether you consider that an endorsement may tell you all you need to know about this album -- or you could just listen to Juanes sing the huge bittersweet chorus of "Delirio", see whether you don't turn to jelly, and go from there.