Saturday, September 11, 2010

Loose - Nelly Furtado

There aren't many albums that have been so widely misapprehended and misrepresented despite massive commercial success as Nelly Furtado's Loose. Both lyrically and musically, comprehension of Loose requires attentive and discriminating ears.

This, Furtado's third album, is musically complex and sophisticated. It's lyrically mature, almost wise. Furtado, despite the pleasingly youthful tinge to her voice, always oozed wisdom in the lyrics to her first two albums.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of the public is under the impression that she “sold out” by teaming with Timbaland, perhaps the most famous hip-hop producer in the world, for the majority of Loose. That is partly because they also wrongly interpreted her first two albums as snugly fitting into the thoughtful-girl-with-an-acoustic-guitar mould. Furtado’s music has never done so. Two of her first singles, “Turn Off the Light” and “Shit On the Radio” were heavily leavened with hip-hop beats and even scratching. Indeed, Furtado addressed an ex-lover who jealously accused her of selling out by going commercial on the latter single. The fact that her dancing sexily in skimpy clothes in the film clip to Loose’s mega-selling “Maneater” turned a lot of Furtado’s folk rock-loving fans almost acrimoniously against her is just a continuation of her journey.

Ultimately, Loose was a massive commercial success: the 22nd highest-selling album of the noughties, with two US number one singles, “Promiscuous” and “Say It Right”.

Furtado wanted to create an ambience of reckless impulsivity, and to capture the tasteful sexual confidence of Janet Jackson circa 1993 for Loose. Despite the “loose” feeling conjured by a couple of moments of studio chat in between a few tracks and heavy instrumental and vocal syncopation in the dance tracks, this is in fact a perfectly sequenced and balanced album. It is heavy on emotive ballads and latin pop, in addition to the more exciting and controversial electro, hip-hop and R&B. Indeed, one of Furtado’s “throwaway” studio interactions with Timbaland couldn’t be a more precisely appropriate ending to “Maneater” and introduction to “Promiscuous”. Furtado: “Am I throwin’ you off?”. Timbaland: “Nope.” Furtado: “Didn’t think so.”

The first three tracks do feel like the album is about to fly off the rails on first listen. “Afraid” is a haunting ode to self-doubt and confusion whispered, chanted and wailed over quiet hip-hop that sometimes sputters out of control.

Then sonic confusion for most listeners explodes: “Maneater”. A towering, unforgettable colossus of a song, it is handled by Timbaland with absolute loving attention to detail. Intricate, surprising in turns, it could be mistaken for a quirky dance track. It isn’t. “Maneater” kicks along to a bizarrely paced marching beat, over which bass synth horns sublimely provide a simple riff. There is also a uniquely engineered sliding/scratching motif that morphs into a hi-hat in the chorus. Furtado says that people don’t give credit for Timbaland’s ability to bring the best out of singers’ voices. The truth in Furtado’s praise is most evident here. After a ghoulish backing vocal intro, Furtado’s cracking verse delivery floors the listener. The melody and key changes of the verses are magnificent and Furtado’s occasionally guttural voice changes in inflection, tone and syllabic emphasis, creating an ominous, anxious, yet exciting atmosphere. And somehow it is impossible not to dance to. The chorus is catchy and slightly upbeat, but the illusion created by the compulsion to dance is dealt a death blow in the bridge, where Furtado’s voice, alone over just the bass, a shimmering, growing synth and Timbaland’s whispers, makes her sound like she’s doubled over in pain, as if on the verge of violent tears. This part of the song was glossed over in the single release, for good reason. It’s devastating.

“Promiscuous” is a catchy, sexy duet between Furtado and Timbaland. The verses are perfect, staccato back-and-forths between the two pitched over a break beat and an off-kilter synth-accordion riff. A more conventional chorus stabilises the track, but it somehow remains eerie. The low key patter in the verses obscures clever lyricism.

Ballad-wise, Furtado spins out of nowhere a crushingly painful masterpiece: “Say It Right”, which sounds as if recorded in a cathedral, with strikingly original, haunting engineering. “No you don’t mean nothing at all to me/But you know what it takes to set me free”. The melodies and harmonies could be delivered from a coffin, from a soul utterly resigned to a coming nothingness. “I can’t say that I don’t love the light and the dark/I can’t say that I don’t know that I am alive”. It is Furtado’s highest-ever selling single. The several other fairly conventional ballads on the album are also beautiful, and deliciously painful.

“Glow” is blessed with a swing beat and a vulnerable section where Furtado nails a high-pitched, falling melody in which she cries “I don’t know what to say/I don’t know what to do.” The album is further normalised with the sauntering yet painful ballad “Showtime” and three catchy, well-written latin/salsa numbers.

“Wait For You” is the one true R&B track, yet doesn’t sound out of place. “Let My Hair Down” is a sexy, latin-hip-hop hybrid with subtle arrangements, and is another highlight.

Throughout, Furtado’s confidence in her vocal ability is undeniable. She powerfully emotes, excites, exudes sexuality and effortlessly slides between styles. The true anchor of the album is the voice. Timbaland’s excitement about the album is evident in his exquisite production and arrangements, sometimes subtle, sometimes striking, sometimes like nothing ever heard before, anywhere, ever. One of the highlights of the decade, this album is destined to be considered a classic for a long time.

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