Over the course of a career that’s spanned 15 years and some change, Seal has crafted an image as an ethereal balladeer. His rough-hewn soulful croon has contrasted nicely with his music over the years. A music which has mostly comprised tasteful mid-tempo pop and beautifully orchestrated moodier cuts that hint at new age and dream-pop textures. After four increasingly lush Trevor Horn-produced albums, you’ve gotta figure that it was time for Seal to try something a little different. So Seal’s new record, System, is a departure if you’re familiar only with Seal’s more recent or more popular music.
If you’re a fan of his earliest work, including the hit single “Crazy” and his guest turn on Adamski’s “Killer”, then this album will be a refreshing step back in time. It’s an album powered by driving, electronic beats the likes of which he hasn’t explored heavily since his classic 1991 debut. For the first time ever, the man behind the boards is not former Yes-man Horn. Stuart Price, who is best known for helping Madonna out on “Confessions on a Dance Floor”, helms the production of this album. Price updates Seal’s sound to a degree, but the sonic changes doesn’t take away from Seal’s warm vocals and intelligent lyrics. And what is the end result? A fairly typical Seal album, just one that makes you dance a little more!
If you (like me) have a terrible allergy to most current dance music, then have no fear. Although the beats are tough and contemporary, System can boast of a couple of things that the average 21st century collection of club anthems would lack. That is a top notch vocalist and lyrics (as opposed to chants…wait, we can throw melody in there too). It’s thinking-person’s dance music, with mental and emotional resonance as opposed to the thump-thump-release that makes most contemporary dance completely useless once you step off the dance floor.
If I can bring Madonna up again in this review (and I can’t promise I won’t do it again), this album sounds like a much more successful fusion of electric and acoustic musical textures that Madge has been exploring for the past decade or so. The songs would work either way. It would be very easy to replace the pulsing synthesizers of several songs with acoustic guitars (or even loud rock guitars in a couple of cases, if Seal so desired).
Of course, Seal has become much more known over the past couple of years for his non-musical endeavors, which include marrying and impregnating supermodel extraordinaire Heidi Klum. One thing that might interest rubbernecks is the fact that Heidi actually sings on this album. No, seriously, Heidi sings on this album. And the song’s not bad. Besides, if you’re gonna make a song called “Wedding Song”, wouldn’t it make sense to have the bride onboard for the proceedings? Truthfully, Heidi doesn’t embarrass herself as a vocalist, although she can’t hold a candle to her hubby. It’s a touching duet, and Heidi is at least as good a vocalist as fellow model/singer Naomi Campbell.
There’s plenty more ear candy to be found on System. The ethereal vibe of most of Seal’s lyrics gives this album an atmospheric, almost trance-like feel that‘s reminiscent of some of the best early ‘80s dance music. The propulsive “The Right Life” is a prime example of this sound, with a feel very similar to Madonna‘s “Get Together“ (by far the best song on the mediocre Confessions). “Loaded“ is another winner, with an ‘80s style synthesizer breakdown that could have come off of an old Yaz record. “Dumb” is another monster entirely. It’s the strangest track on the album, with a mix of jangly acoustic guitar and hand-clappy percussion that suggests…well, I’m not sure what it’ll suggest to YOU, but it reminds ME of something from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Just to mix things up so that fans of Seal’s more adult contemporary music don’t run away screaming, the album closes with the signature shimmering ballad “Rolling” and the dream-like “Immaculate“. These are the two songs that sound most like…well, not the old Seal, but the most widely known Seal.
Seal’s always been a little more edgy than your average adult contemporary superstar. So while a Josh Groban or Michael Buble fan (or even a James Blunt fan) might be taken aback by the slightly more electronic flavor of an album like System, most fans of Seal will accept this album as yet another strong entry in his eminently listenable catalog. Despite the album having a bit of a different texture than his past couple, it’s still atmospheric and soothing. Granted, if you were there from day one, then System will probably not come as a surprise to you at all.