Tuesday, December 15, 2009
#19. 'It's the sweetest taste of sin'
Whenever I hear an artist described as "the new (insert older artist here)" I mentally tune them out. I may have done an about face on pop music in general but any time someone is being passed off as the purported heir to a throne that in most cases hasn't exactly been abandoned or in need of having a new occupant I tend to try my best to ignore them. I don't know exactly why that is, it could be that 9 times out of ten we're talking about artists I have no stake in at best or at worst have nothing but antipathy towards, but the myth of succession in pop music irks me. In a genre that's made so many leaps forward this decade it feels antithetical for it to still cling to the idea that rather than delivering a new form of artist the audiences need to have their old favorites replicated with increasingly diminishing returns. I guess it works, but when the genre could be pushing forward on all fronts it still falls back on stock types so often that it feels like laziness.
So if you want to know why I avoided Ne-Yo for so long, it's because I heard him described as "the new Usher" - just what we needed amirite? - before Usher decided that he wasn't quite done with the whole success thing. The little bits I heard of him didn't do much to make me think I was missing out; "So Sick" had good lyrics at its heart but seemed like it was a standard sensitive urban dude slow jam on the whole, and neither he nor Rihanna made much of an impact on me with "Hate That I Love You". For all I could tell, Ne-Yo was just another in the long line of male R 'n' B singers that had the voice and the charm but otherwise didn't offer much to someone who was sick of that whole scene. He served his purpose, but that purpose was far removed from what I was looking for in pop music.
Then along comes "Closer".
I may have completely misjudged Ne-Yo it seems. Under the studio mandated gloss of his previous singles there was something more impressive lurking, a quiet sophistication and grace that so many of his peers lacked and made up for with at times ridiculous dancing and mugging. The dude had class, basically. For the talk about him being the new Usher it turns out that he was exactly the opposite at his core, someone with a sense of sophistication in an increasingly ribald (not that I mind ribald but just go with me here) genre. He dubbed himself a gentleman and did nothing to dissuade me of that notion. And he did it on his most energetic and downright danceable single to date.
"Closer" floored me on first listen, but it didn't floor me the way that a lot of pop singles fro mteh last part of the decade did. It wasn't noteworthy for sounding unlike anything on the radio at that point, it sounded tailor made for the radio to be truthful, but because it there was such an obvious sense of craft behind. Nevermind the sophistication that Ne-Yo brings with his presence, the track itself sounded sophisticated, letting the layers come in and be shown in isolation before introducing their interactions, all the tracks sounding utterly immaculate and sharp. It sounded like the ideal version of the male R 'n' B mid tempo dance number, one where every single element fell perfectly into place in terms of production and the vocals and lyrics didn't work against the good tune that might have been brewing. In just under four minutes "Closer" made every similar song obsolete in my view and took Ne-Yo off my pop blacklist, not bad for a song that could have just as easily justified my negative views of teh dude.
It comes down to the production, not surprisingly given that this is me we're talking about. On paper it looks like a slightly schizophrenic amalgam of ideas (thumping house drum machine, fluid acoustic guitar, light handclaps, pulsing bass line and orchestral stabs) but the way its all assembled, mixing and matching the different elements in as many isolated combinations as possible only really bringing them all together in the last part of the chorus, is a stroke of genius. In a way it sounds like a set of separate tracks that got welded together a la "Take Me Out," but eventually the whole picture becomes clear, right at the end of the first chorus when that introductory bass line re-emerges, and the whole song falls into place. The production is like a puzzle in that sense; you get all these pieces thrown at you that don't seem to fit together at all until you line them up just right and it becomes obvious. That's probably the most unique element of the song right there, but its execution makes it sound so perfectly normal that the oddness doesn't overwhelm the track. And then there's the moment that took it over the top, the move into half time for the last section. Is it a cheap trick? Maybe, but goddamn, hearing that thumping beat slow to a crawl on a dime while the track around it kept going was one of those perfect 'chill' moments that are all too rare on pop radio.
And then there's Ne-Yo. I can see the 'new Usher' thing to some extent, but while Ush traded heavily on youth and immaturity for the better part of his career Shaffer Smith goes the opposite way and actually strives for something resembling maturity. "Closer " isn't the best example of this on a lyrical level, but the performance aspect is right in that specific wheelhouse. It's controlled for one thing, even in the final moments where he seems to be building up to one of those trademark song-ending-vocal-histrionics-extravaganzas that have become the go-to device on urban radio (Thanks, Mariah, we really appreciate that) he holds it back to a few interjections before the half-time shift. Before that though the vocal is all about control while the lyric anticipates the loss of control. That sort of push-pull between the core aspects of his performance adds a lot to the track, the vocal trying to maintain at least the appearance of civility while the lyrics are all but ravishing the object of his attention. I mean just listen to the chorus: the delivery is so choppy that it feels like its a battle to not let the vocal drift over into the lyric's realm of obsession, and it's unclear whether it succeeds or not. The chorus' delivery is also indicative of just how malleable Ne-Yo's voice is, always adapting perfectly to its surroundings even as they shift as liberally as they do here. Really it's the perfect icing on the track, and it goes beyond just his usual smothness for once.