Friday, December 11, 2009
#21. 'You could be the one to set me free'
Nelly Furtado "Say It Right"
I find it hard to say whether the transformation that Nelly Furtado underwent on 2006's Loose was the most unexpected or the least unexpected stylistic change-up of the decade. On the one hand she'd certainly been part of the R 'n' B world, at least on the fringes, from the start of her career, appearing on various remixes for surprisingly competent guest verses, and she always seemed to have much more to her arsenal than just the foly pop she made her name with even if it never came to the surface. On the other, in the space of a year or so she went from "Powerless" - a pretty great song in its own right I might add - to "Promiscuous", which has to be one of the quickest changes of approach I've witnessed. Whether or not it was expected, in the end it worked out for the best. Furtado's career got a healthy boost, she helped Timbaland back to the highs of his early 00s peak alongside some dude from a boyband, and together they blessed us with the weirdest number one of the decade.
"Say It Right" isn't weird in the way that something like "Celebrate the Body Electric" or any number of other independent singles are weird, it's weird because of context as opposed to actuality. Look at it this way: here's a song that one could describe as 'sparse' and have that be an understatement, anchored mostly by a haunting chord progression and what could very well be beatboxing, and it's the song that knocked "Irreplaceable", in the running for biggest song of the decade popularity-wise, off the top of the charts. It doesn't sound like the kind of song that should have that sort of thing on its resume. Hell, it doesn't even sound like it should be a number one single period. It sounds like something that was brought up from the underground for limited exposure and maybe caught on with a small niche of avid pop listeners, but nothing more. It could just be a testament to the sort of magic touch that TImbaland had at this point in his career, but the idea of anything remotely like "Say It Right" being among the most played songs of any time period still feels a bit wrong somehow, not that I'm complaining.
Maybe the fact that it didn't sound like it belonged on pop radio is what made it sound so good - no, great - to me initially, but the fact of it is that "Say It Right" is an absolute killer of a song. Between that keyboard progression, the distant percussion and Timbaland's own vocal interjection that sound like they're coming from about 5 rooms away (apparently the result of him and co-producer Danja experimenting with mic positions in the studio at 4 in the morning...god bless early morning ingenuity) the production of the track is absolutely spot-on. It's haunting as fuck for one thing; that combination of chords plus the tone of Danja's keyboards almost makes it sound like a particularly stripped down release from Projekt Records or an old This Mortal Coil track, evocative yet unsettling. Other than that you've got light percussion, almost seems to be there as an afterthought to be truthful, that seems to be a melodic focus as opposed to a rhythmic one, with Tim's vocals providing much of what I'd consider the beat. And then that guitar solo comes in, and it's just as cold and fragile as the rest of the track and it sends a chill down my spine every god damn time. Every single piece of the production clicks perfectly, and it's so immaculately rendered - honestly, you expect anything else from Timbabland? - that if it weren't so damned weird it's success would have been all but guaranteed. The fact that its popularity overcame its weirdness is one of the best examples of how good music willed out this decade.
It's really unfair to Nelly Furtado that she's the weakest element of the song. It's easily her best performance out of all the Loose singles, a controlled, unmistakably pure vocal that never gets too insubstantial or too overpowering in the face of the production, but when it has to compete with the godliness that Tim's laid out underneath it it's destined to fail. Nonetheless, at least she doesn't embarrass herself here. It would have been easy to take such a sparse backdrop and turn it into a vocal showcase, but I'll give Furtado credit for knowing that in this case it was best to work with the arrangement instead of over it. Lyrically though it's miles above, and yes,weirder - oy with that word already - than its competition. It seems to take the almost dreamlike arrangement and use it as an excuse to engage in the sort of free association that applies to dream logic. It's not so much a cohesive song about anything as it is a series of phrases that sound good when folded into the production. It's, once again, a strange sort of tack to take for a pop song - single no less - but why get hung up on the words when in the end they just sound fucking good?