September 15, 2003

Terence Trent D'arby "Wildcard! (The Joker's Edition)"

I wonder if the average Mundane Sounds reader would even recognize the name Terence Trent D’Arby upon seeing this review. History declares him to be a two-hit wonder who spent 1987 riding a wave of fame spurred by “Wishing Well” and “Sign Your Name,” the singles from his debut album Introducing the Hardline. The album sold at least fifteen million copies worldwide --- twenty-two million if you believe his accusations of accounting fraud on Sony’s part. Pretentious enough to fake a British accent in interviews even though he was born in New York, and arrogant enough to claim that his debut was even better than the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, D’Arby seemed like the perfect candidate for an ego-crushing downfall. So it came to pass that two years later, his sophomore album sank like a dead weight, selling maybe a third of the amount that Hardline did, and his music ceased to be a pressing concern ever since. It sounds harsh, but may I remind you that I wrote, “history declares him,” and my job as a rock critic is to take history and shape it as I see fit. Here’s where I begin the rewriting of history.

Yes, it’s true that Terence’s ego was super-sized by his brush with fame, and it’s also true that he hasn’t had a real hit single since 1987. What most pop music buffs won’t tell you is that D'arby did and still does deserve all of the acclaim that he heaped upon himself. Introducing the Hardline was a gem that announced the arrival of a major talent nearly on par with Prince and Todd Rundgren. Like the aforementioned artists, D’Arby is a one-man band who plays, like, a billion instruments well and can make entire albums on his own if he wanted to. He has both Prince’s knack for internalizing almost every genre of music into his own stew of rock-flavored R&B and his tendency toward nonsensical quasi-mysticism, as well as Todd Rundgren’s easygoing sense of humor and mastery of Beatlesque melody. However, D’Arby is much more grounded than Prince, is more stylistically versatile than Rundgren, and can sing better than either of them. The only reason why I say that D’Arby is “nearly on par” is because Prince and Todd have been around longer and have more of a legacy. Give D’Arby another decade, though, and the “nearly” will be removed. How do you know this, you might ask, on the basis of just one album? I’ll answer that unlike most people, I’ve heard his other four albums.

Although all of the man’s albums are worthy of your money, it has to be said that his career has taken an up-and-down trajectory artistically. His first and third albums (Hardline and the amazing Symphony or Damn) are much better than his second and fourth albums (the flighty Neither Fish Nor Flesh and the erratic Vibrator). His latest, Wildcard, continues his pattern of odd-numbered killers, but a number of things have changed between his previous album and this one. D’Arby has since eaten a huge slice of humble pie, freed himself from Sony, moved to Italy, and changed his name to Sananda Maitreya. Yeah, it’s a weird name, but at least he’s wise enough to keep the D’Arby identity for name recognition, and it’s still comparatively easier to pronounce than the symbol that Prince used to go by. His musical skills haven’t changed a bit, though, and with Wildcard Maitreya has probably crafted the best R&B album that no one will hear this year. If you haven’t figured it out by now, THIS AIN’T NO STINKING INDIE-ROCK (although it did come out on Maitreya’s own label). Quit complaining and keep reading.

“O Divina” begins with Sananda strumming a banjo and singing sweet nothings in a falsetto that suggests what an Alfalfa serenade would sound like if Alfalfa actually had talent. Once the horn section kicks in, his singing becomes much more assertive, and you officially know that Mr. Hardline is back. This is one of many songs in which Sananda uses women as extended metaphors for other concepts. He praises “Divina” for boosting his self-esteem and extending forgiveness unto him. In “SRR-636,” he compares the music industry to a woman trying to seduce him (or get him to sell out): “Get your wiggle on/Be sexy like Lenny [as in Kravitz].” “Let your mind move on,” Sananda replies: “It sells for a penny/Like a record groove gets scratched by a needle/Telling kids the truth about the Byrds and the Beatles.” “Shalom” uses feminine personification to describe the concept of peace, and that’s about all the sense I can make out of it. The “Diane” in “Goodbye Diane” presumably represents the music industry, as Sananda obliquely admits to both hubris and drug addiction. “My lamb was getting trampled,” he sings, “but now his bleats are getting sampled.” Then there are the songs that address women directly, be they man-eaters (“Designated Fool”) or ideal yet secret loves (“What Should I Do,” “And They Will Never Know”).

A number of the songs can be interpreted as self-help tomes. In “The Inner Scream,” Sananda cautions listeners not to hold negative feelings inside of them, lest their “anger becomes a disease.” “Ev’rythang” makes plain his desire to become one with the universe (whatever that means). “Be Willing” seems to be a motivation screed for frustrated artists. “A masterpiece of promise is what you are,” he sings, “so never let nothing stand between heaven and your heart.” Yes, these lyrics are often corny, but Sananda sings them with sincerity and a conviction that rebukes ridicule. I repeat: he SINGS them. Let me make this point quite clear: SANANDA CAN SING HIS BUTT OFF. I’m not talking about the over-compensatory gospel runs that R&B singers love to throw away to compensate for the song’s lack of real melody. This is a man who writes songs that cannot be sung convincingly without a technically skilled voice, and he merely sings them how they’re supposed to go, with a few unobtrusive embellishments. When Sananda pleads with his lover to help him cast out his demons on “My Dark Places,” his singing feels like he’s standing in front of you with one hand on your shoulder and the other on his microphone, his dreadlocks whipping you all over your face. There’s no Pro-Tools auto-tuned cyborg crap on this record --- just pure, soulful SINGING.

The arrangements on this record are frequently stellar. Check out the
humorously melodramatic “Suga Free,” in which Sananda backs his lament “My baby’s gone sugar free/I think my sweet tooth is missing a cavity” with samples from a choir singing Mozart. The sadness is laced with an irony that keeps the song from becoming trite. Many of the songs have exquisite close vocal harmonies, “Be Willing” a shining example thereof. Unexpected instruments such as accordion, sitar, and the aforementioned banjo make appearances in many of the songs, but they’re subtle enough not to draw “look-how-diverse-I-am” attention to themselves. The ascending jazz chord progression of “Shalom” makes the whole song seems like it’s slowly levitating in mid-air. There are a few too many songs that rely on stock drum loops, like “Driving Me Crazy” and “The Inner Scream,” but that might be due more to budgetary limitations than anything else. Sananda’s voice deserves to be backed by the most florid and organic instrumentation he can manage. Of course, not every song is a classic; very few 75-minute albums lack what Beatles producer George Martin used to call “potboilers.” However, one of the Beatles’ strengths was that due to the strength of their melodies and musicianship, even their potboilers had moments that made them worthy of repeated listens. The same case can be made for D’Arby, as his voice makes even standard love songs like “Driving Me Crazy,” “Girl,” and “Sweetness” (whose lyrical content can be gleaned just from paying attention to the titles) more than palatable.

Not only has Sananda made the best R&B album of the year, but he’s also been generous enough to post it in its entirety on his
website so that you can “try before you buy.” You’ve received adequate warning for me to lay the following choice before you. You can keep on suffering through tuneless and repetitive R&B songs with weak vocals, weaker lyrics, stolen beats, and wack guest appearances by mediocre rappers. On the other hand, you can let Wildcard take you back to an era in which R&B artists sung, wrote, and played songs with actual and original verses, choruses, bridges, and melodies without a computer around to mask their deficiencies. You can take your “Thoia Thoing” and “Rock Wit U” (and even your “Crazy in Love”) and shove it. Terence Trent D’Arby rocks, rules, and owns in all kinds of ways. This time around, though, he’s allowing critics like me to say it FOR him.

--Sean Padilla

No comments: