Music

Seal: Soul

It might be cruel to suggest that Soul feels a little soulless. Cruel, but not entirely incorrect.


Seal

Soul

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2008-11-11
UK Release Date: 2008-11-10
Amazon
iTunes

All the accoutrements are in place for an album that portends to celebrate soul: Loosened tie? Check. Vintage microphone? Check. Tinted black and white photograph? Check. Whose visage is that with eyes closed and parted lips? No, not Ryan Shaw. It’s Seal, and just in case the visual cues escaped you, his latest album is entitled Soul.

Is this album really necessary? Well, life is really no better or worse after listening to Soul. It's a rather innocuous collection. Seal maximizes the contrivances of the project, singing songs popularized by Sam Cooke and Otis Redding with that slightly raspy tone of his, as if his life depended on it. The question that looms over the project is a big ole "Why?"

Seal is not an untalented songwriter and I wonder why he felt the need to mine such well-trod territory. Is he going through a creative drought? Is this simply a contract-fulfilling release (his sixth studio album for Warner Bros.)? I'd like to believe that these songs genuinely inspire him but after the disappointing sales of System (2007), Soul seems like a slightly desperate, commercially low-risk ploy to sell records.

Since Seal's audience has dissipated from its mid-'90s high, it stands to reason that he's in search of a new one with Soul. After all, in the age of American Idol, who doesn't like to hear familiar songs…right? It doesn't require much work to learn the lyrics. People already know them. Capitalizing on the rampant interpolation of '60s-soul in contemporary music, I'm sure, must have seemed like a good idea. Bringing in superstar producer David Foster (he of Celebrity Duets) to helm production made sense too but the problem with Soul is that it just seems focus-grouped to death. Perhaps this is the record label's way of attempting to earn money back lost on System. With the holiday season basically here, I don't doubt the label heads are counting on Soul to be an impulse purchase on the Wal-Mart check-out line.

For the people that do listen to Soul, Seal might be their entrée to "People Get Ready" and "A Change Is Gonna Come". While I'd like to think that Seal's listeners would already know these songs, maybe his target audience is the 14 year-old who dug that Amy Winehouse record (or that grandmother who thinks they just don't make songs like these anymore). With each new generation further removed from the original versions of these songs – the ones that music aficionados swear by – what is the harm in reintroducing them? Nothing, I guess, so long as the originals are not buried and forgotten. As a child of the '80s, I knew UB40, Tina Turner, and Simply Red's versions of "Here I Am", "I Can't Stand the Rain", and "If You Don't Know Me By Now", respectively, before the Al Green, Ann Peebles, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes versions entered my musical life. Hearing the originals was certainly a revelation and it made me appreciate the talent of the songwriters, admiring how their words live on beyond an artist's original interpretation. Perhaps someone listening to Soul will have a similar experience with those songs. There is something to be said for authenticity, though, and I just don't believe Seal when he sings "this is a man's world" the way I believe James Brown.

Seal actually sounds best on the album's one wild card. It's a cover of Deniece Williams' 1976 hit, "Free". The bulk of Soul covers the post-doo wop, pre-disco era of R&B, whose generation is bookended by Sam Cooke and Al Green. "Free" was released just beyond that era. Instead of the eastern and southern centers of soul music like Philadelphia and Memphis, "Free" was recorded in the pristine studios of Los Angeles. Whereas gospel can be detected in the Impressions, Otis Redding, and Ben E. King, a completely different strain of soul molds the voice of Deniece Williams (a songbird comes to mind). "Free" is the most successful track on the album because Seal isn't consciously echoing the heralded soul men of years past. Instead, his nuanced performance is the true definition of what it means to interpret a song. With Seal's voice, "Free" takes on a life of its own.

The non-cynic in me wants to root for this album, partially because David Foster's production is quite good. He adorns the tracks with strings and horns and makes Seal's voice sound pristine. I also want to give Seal a pass for trying but then I think about "Killer", "Crazy", "Newborn Friend", and "Amazing". I think that he could have tried harder to add to his own legacy rather than ride on somebody else's. It might be cruel to suggest that Soul feels a little soulless. Cruel, but not entirely incorrect.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image