When Shakira had her big breakthrough, Laundry Service, I wrote an extremely corny review in which I said that it was too poppy and too much under the influence of Emilio Estefan, and that Shakira needed to get back to her roots as a Latin pop-rock singer/songwriter. The fact that “Whenever, Whatever” and “Underneath Your Clothes” became big hits and established her as an every-other-household name wasn’t good enough for me, back then. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, etc.
Shakira’s pulling a cred move double album maneuver this year, releasing this Spanish-language disc, to be followed by the English-language Oral Fixation, Vol. 2 in a couple of months. This first album is what I asked for, lo those many years ago: a return to Shakira-as-Latina territory. So if you approach Fijación Oral expecting it to be Laundry Service Revisited you will not be happy. If, on the other hand, you can just listen to it without holding a lot of preconceived “this is not what Shakira is supposed to sound like” ideas, you will have one hell of a good time.
There is not a lot of clutter in these songs; they are straightforward, whether they are mid-tempo conventional rock en español tunes or ballads or bossa nova or new wave homages or reggaetón. I think she’s doing this to showcase her main weapon: her voice, still sexy and breathy and overladen with vibrato, and still as likely to break into weird sudden gulps of passion. This is evident on the opener, “En Tus Pupilas”, which is soft and slow and folkish, which really makes these occasional vocal fillips of madness (think Alanis Morrisette or Sinead O’Connor in their primes) really stand out more. “No” pulls off a similar trick — its slow-burning reserve is the simple setting for the crazy diamond that is Shakira’s voice. It is almost as if she contains so much emotion that she cannot be contained by human songform. And yes, I know this is an affectation; that’s why I said “almost”. But still, it’s one hell of a trick.
The big single, “La Tortura”, is a duet with Spanish songstud Alejandro Sanz, and isn’t quite reggaetón, although it makes full use of the reggaetón beat. (The video, where she is greased up and dancing like a freaky robot, is pretty hot.) What it is is an exhortation to enjoy and appreciate one’s life without beating yourself up… but that doesn’t matter. What really matters are these two overheated voices working with and against each other, and the way that undeniable beat really comes alive when there is actually a beautiful melody underneath it.
Not too much here will fulfill her English-speaking arena-rock fans, other than the balls-out closer “Lo Imprescindible”, which weds metallic techno-crunch verses to a yearning chorus. But there is a lot to discover here, if you listen closely. There are great nods to the sounds of the 1980s in “Escondite Inglés” (The B-52’s) and “La Pared” (Eurythmics). There are lovely sly tunes that only grab you the third or fourth time through the record, especially the Natalia Lafourcade-ish “Dia de Enero”. And there is enough heartbreak in the string-pregnant bossa nova hybrid “Obtener un Sí” to launch a thousand ships, or something like that.
Fijación Oral is a very good Latin pop album. To say that I’m looking forward to Oral Fixation is a massive understatement.