That good old-fashioned soul music, along with a few mid-tempo grooves and the talent to write, sing, play and produce his debut make Van Hunt seem like the newest member of the neo-soul tribe. But what sets Hunt apart is the fact that he’s no down-home, gritty, gospel-infused troubadour. He’s a complex brother, a guy who sounds best both complicated and self-deprecating. The music is great and so are the lyrics — Hunt manages to be original and refreshing, even when he sounds like other people.
On Hunt’s self-titled debut, he casts relationship drama as a dreamy lounge set and makes love sound like slow, sexy death. Sometimes, merely pretty sounds gorgeous, and often, personal demons are translated into poetry. Once in awhile, he plays Prince or Sly Stone or Eric Benet, but his funk doesn’t sound borrowed, just tried on for size.
“Down Here In Hell (With You)”, for instance, is a tender ode to imperfect unions. “What would I do if we were perfect / Where would I go for disappointment / Love without pain / Would leave me wondering why I stay . . . ” is the gist of this sadomasochistic confession, and stylistically, it makes hell sound as sweet and cozy as heaven. Strange as it may sound, Hunt comes off as both bizarre and lovely here, as well as on “Hello, Goodbye”. The opening track, “Dust”, just makes him sound like he’s lost it, but the follow up love songs about torment clarify that he’s still sort of sane . . . maybe.
Then there’s “What Can I Say (For Millicent)”, which is a poignant and apologetic poem recited over a resonating piano. It’s a decent interlude, but the sweet music is wrapped in fluffy words like: “She sleeps with the moonlight under her head / With the clouds to keep her warm / Far from the noise of the world below / She comes to me in my dreams / like a love song / and I awake only to hear her go.” In spite of his metrosexual meanderings, the song is still one remarkably understated moment among many on his album.
“Who Will Love Me In Winter” is another pessimistic but nicely composed song. The same holds true for “Her December”, an allegorical musing about the seasons of a woman which features a catchy Latin beat, and is one of the best (and only) uptempo songs here. Although musically, “Hold My Hand” sounds too much like a Prince cover, it’s still a damn good song about secret seduction and young love.
As a man who is dedicated to facing his flaws in his work, Hunt must’ve felt the flat nature of “Anything (To Get Your Attention)”, which is trite, despite a few smart lines hid under the bad music. Then there are the overwrought moments, which sound heartfelt, but seem too basic for the rest of the album. “Seconds of Pleasure”, for example, explains itself with that title — except there are no pleasing seconds in it, it’s just a dopey, half-assed offering, especially as compared to the depth of Hunt’s other work.
All things considered, Van Hunt is probably one of the best R&B albums of the year so far. It separates Hunt from marketable sex gods and whiny boy groups because it offers music that makes you think differently. This debut also places him firmly in the thinning category of artists who use their contradictions to inform their art. Even if he can be depressing and more of a tear-jerker than a man who will make you yearn to slow dance, Hunt’s album offers the gift of a brave new voice that makes you want to press repeat over and over — and that might be better.