If Marisa Monte were a tarot card, she would be the Empress. Just like this card, the Brazilian singer-songwriter is unapologetic about her womanhood and all her characteristics that, for better and for worse, have become symbols of femininity, like her delicate and romantic style, her soft, and high-pitched voice. Another thing the Empress and Monte have in common is self-assurance and stability, and that’s where a lot of their power lies.
Monte made herself a queen for consistently releasing good MPB (an acronym for Brazilian Popular Music, an umbrella genre that encompasses variations of folk and pop songs) across three decades. Just like a matriarch, Monte is that constant presence that is remembered and respected even if she’s silent or absent. Monte can spend a decade, as she did, without putting out new music, and her name will still be mentioned in any conversation about Brazil’s canon of popular music. And when she decides to come back, you know it’ll be as good as the last time you heard her music.
That’s what happens in Portas (2021), Marisa Monte’s first studio album since O Que Você Quer Saber de Verdade (2011). It’s like she’s never left. The 16 tracks follow the same molds of MPB and romantic pop of Monte’s classics (such as 1989’s “Bem Que Se Quis” and 2001’s “Amor I Love You”). There are some occasional incursions into samba as on “Elegante Amanhecer”.
Monte is loved by intellectuals as much as mainstream pop lovers. Signaling her appeal to the masses, “Calma” could be Portas’ candidate for placement in a Brazilian novela (which is as mainstream as one Brazilian song can get). Nevertheless, the album also excels in its less radio-friendly moments, like in the gorgeously arranged “Espaçonaves”, or the bright “Sal”. One of the album’s highlights, “Vagalumes”, combines chords reminiscent of Spanish flamenco and lyrics in the style of Brazilian Modernism poetry.
Portas is almost escapist in how its positivity and romance distance from Brazil’s current scenario. The Covid-19 pandemic has not slowed down, and the political tension doesn’t feel any close to an end either. Monte’s voice is balsamic by itself: her timbre, and the naturality with which she sings, are enough to inspire tranquility and peace.
But the songwriting in Portas is top tier too. Monte’s longtime collaborators, such as Arnaldo Antunes and Nando Reis, accompany her in the credits and new names like Silva, one of the exponents of the new generation of MPB. Monte’s daughter Flor de Maria and samba-rock artist Seu Jorge shine when singing along with her in “Pra Melhorar”, ending the album on a hopeful note. Other names in the album’s credits are Chico Brown, Marcelo Camelo, Pretinho da Serrinha, Arto Lindsay, Pedro Baby, Dadi, and Lucas Silva.
Portas is nearly too gracious to have been gestated and birthed in a time like now. It’s as if this album had been released too late or too soon. Remember how, in the first months of the covid pandemic and isolation, one could look at the window and see empty streets, hear little to no city noises, and read on the phone headlines like “with humans at home, the planet is finally breathing”? Portas could soundtrack those moments for privileged people who could stay at home, holding on to their sanity through art and entertainment. (As the lyrics of “Vagalume” say, “one thing so small can change one’s life”). Or, maybe, the album will be a perfect soundtrack for when we are finally free from covid everywhere.
But to think there is a right time or place for the music of Marisa Monte is wrong; she is just too good. Even if we think it’s too early for the optimism of Portas, the album mocks us with its elegant self-assurance: “Calma, que eu já tô pensando no futuro” (“Keep calm, I got my eyes on the future already”), Monte sings in “Calma”. It may not be enough to be calm and stable amid the chaos, but these are not things to be taken for granted either. Portas comes to show Marisa Monte is one Brazilian institution that still works perfectly as ever. Portas isn’t an adventurous album — and that’s by no means a failure. After all, why would someone like Marisa Monte want to be anybody other than Marisa Monte?