Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Seal: Funk-Pop Like A One-Hit Wonder

The Good: Decent vocals, "Crazy"
The Bad: Much of the music is indistinct or unremarkable, Lyrically unimpressive, Surprisingly "produced," liner notes
The Basics: Weaker than one might expect both lyrically and musically, the first Seal album entitled Seal is a surprising disappointment.

There are few images in the video age that are so distinct and memorable that virtually anyone alive and connected to pop culture at the time (or later) can instantly recognize them. This is especially true of music videos featuring a solo artist singing and little else. Seal's video "Crazy" has one of those iconic images as seal sits and people run out of him. It's an impressive image, the video does more and the song is hardly the typical pop-rock song. I had occasion to watch the video for "Crazy" for the first time in years a few days ago and it occurred to me that I had never listened to a full album by Seal, despite liking any number of his singles.

With only nine tracks and clocking in at 52 minutes, Seal - the album is eponymous, the first of two albums by Seal named Seal - is an fairly unambitous debut. Musically, the album oscillated between overproduced ("The Beginning") and stark in music and vocals ("Whirlpool"). In fact, more than musically diverse, Seal seems directionless, failing to enchant the listener and instead leave the listener unsettled by its lack of cohesion.

Seal, the artist, instantly impressed listeners in the U.S. in 1991 with his hit song "Crazy." The song, with its echoing refrain "We go a little / Crazy!" was unlike anything most Americans had heard. It used instrumentation associated with pop music, threw in powerful vocals with a soul/funk undertone and it caught the attention of the Top 40 listeners. Honestly, it was something so different that it was captivating.

The problem with Seal, the album, is that it does not follow up with the same uniqueness or musical or lyrical strength. Instead, the songs flow indistinctly one from another linked only by Seal's voice. And unlike his single "Crazy," most of the other tracks are remarkably limited in terms of vocal range. While Seal explodes from the lower registers into the higher ones on "Crazy," he doesn't show the same skill on any of the other tracks.

On "Wild," though, his voice modulates, but it lacks the control of "Crazy" (how's that for irony?). So his voice goes high, warbles and it's more noisy than focused, and the effect feels derivative of his own work. When one is derivative on their first album, it's not a good sign. That's basically a polite way of calling someone a one-trick pony.

The liner notes are confusing as we address the music. Seal is pictured with a guitar, but not credited with being one of the musicians on Seal. Either way, it would not matter much. The most distinctive aspect of the music on Seal comes in the form of the drumming throughout the album. On "Show Me," more than Seal's vocals - one of the few pieces he is harmonized with - the sound that catches the ears and captures the imagination are the drums in the first half of the song. It's rare in pop-rock music that we hear bongos or other drums that are played by hand. Here we have that.

It's a small thing to be impressed by and it's fairly desperate that I've resorted to that to write about in my review. Sadly, though the album clocks in at a little over 52 minutes, with the lack of impression the tracks leave there is not much to say. The album starts sounding like it might be funk with heavy keyboards, but it soon devolves into a nebulous pop-soul (think low-key gospel-soul, not upbeat dancable soul) that is captivating only when the production elements do not override the vocals.

It's a shame that that is not often; Seal seems to have an excellent voice. For some reason, far too often on the album producer Trevor Horn feels it necessary to engineer Seal's voice, adding reverb. While this works well on "Crazy" to create a stark, well, crazy-isolated feeling, the entire album comes off as dry and emotionless when it is overused.

For those who are fans of "Crazy," it ought to be noted that just about every radio station edited the song down for time and to eliminate some of the wandering in the middle of the song. As a result, the version on Seal is longer and less familiar to those who only heard it on the radio.

It strikes me that with the successes some of his later songs, Seal would likely release a Greatest Hits album and it turns out in 2004 he did. That's likely to be a better value for your dollar than this. Sadly, this debut sounds like that of a one-hit wonder. Fortunately, he recovered from it.

The best track is "Crazy," the weakest (though that's a tough call) is "Wild."

For other, former male artists I have immersed myself in the study of, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
It Ain't Easy: The Essentials - Wilson Pickett


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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