Monday 16 November 2020

SEAL: Seal


(#428: 1 June 1991, 3 weeks)


Track listing: The Beginning/Deep Water/Crazy/Killer/Whirlpool/Future Love Paradise/Wild/Show Me/Violet


(Author’s Note: There exist two versions of this album. On the “remixed” version, “Crazy” fades a minute earlier, mid-song, “Wild” bears a considerably rockier arrangement and the dialogue samples in “Violet” are absent. “Whirlpool” is also slightly shorter. I have based this piece on the original 52:15 edition. Sometimes, as an artist and a producer, you have to know just when to let something go.)


Despite being produced by Trevor Horn and released on ZTT, Lena and I agreed that the first Seal album is not really New Pop. There is no lyrical hiding place in songs like “Crazy” and “Killer,” both of which were in part inspired by events at Tiananmen Square. Nor can the record, as Wikipedia bizarrely suggests, be filed under New Jack Swing.


If anything, Seal is a folk album. The singer occupied in the early nineties a place similar to that held by Labi Siffre in the seventies and Michael Kiwanuka now; a gifted if emotionally slightly forlorn black British performer whose anger is partially masked by unalterable and implacable dignity and musically is no stranger to the subtle dislocations of psychedelia. A great part of the reason why this record still carries such an impact, despite its very early nineties aura, is Horn’s realisation that this is no longer the eighties, and the maximalist overkill of a Frankie Goes To Hollywood will not work in this environment.


In other words, with Seal, Horn knows the value of restraint, and uses his various production skills very cleverly and subtly, and never for effect alone. These skills help highlight the things Seal has to say; for instance, the giddy “The Beginning” is a barely masked attack on Thatcher: “With energy striking on those she knew would uncover her lies/She knew she must destroy everything that we had prayed for,” but the song’s underlying aura of euphoria leads the listener to believe that change is imminent (as indeed, in November 1990, it already had been).


“Deep Water,” a fairly distressed lament addressed to a mysterious “Jade,” shows off the ingenuity of Horn as a producer and Anne Dudley as an arranger. In fact one marvels at the seemingly effortless manner in which Seal, Horn and Dudley manage to combine elements of lyrical brutalism and musical delicacy. Acoustic guitar fizzles like a near-defunct firework, or a greenly blinking phrase on a malfunctioning word processor screen, and when strings and percussion sweep into the panorama with modest majesty, one thinks of the departing sprites of Drake and Martyn, and the less obvious one of Arthur Russell (where would a lot of pop music be without World Of Echo to have guided some important figures in 1987?).


The hits are as formidably uncompromising as most of today’s hits aren’t. “Crazy” runs semi-randomly through distressing and painful memories before arriving at the conclusion that if humanity is to survive, we have to try to transcend all of this history somehow; and while the Adamski original of “Killer” is still the definitive reading of the song, Horn’s efforts to turn it into a raised-eyebrow rock song (with, I think, Trevor Rabin crashing in on the chords intermittently) offer an absorbing alternative perspective, with Seal underlining the original, unspoken context (“It’s the loneliness that’s the killer” he whispers at the beginning). The final harmonic transition, or ascent, of Dudley’s strings append a necessary question mark to the song.


“Whirlpool” is as abstractly absorbing as, say, AR Kane would be in the mid-nineties – interestingly, the album appears to be structured as a continuous piece, with lyrics from some songs cropping up in others (e.g. in “Future Love Paradise”), and from hereon there is no bombast (not that there had been any before); the record patiently winds down to a quietly unsettling close – “Wild” works better when you can’t hear or feel the riff (when it is only suggested), “Show Me” is as pained in its own way as Kevin Rowland had been in his, and “Violet” slowly shuffles offstage, musing on the nature of love and the need for newness and change. In the background we hear periodic shafts of dialogue, from the movies Back To The Future and Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian, as though the singer is in his front room, trying to think out things while the television cycles on regardless. I’m reminded of Derek Bailey onstage at the ICA, suddenly switching on the TV because Oscar Peterson was on (“I’ve always wanted to play with him”), but this “Violet” penetrates a Happy/Sad level of approachable infinity. William Orbit must have absorbed this record in details since so many of its space and silence tropes are developed in future Then Play Long entries by Madonna and All Saints. The absence of tethering, the general atmosphere of floating through life, also anticipates Boards Of Canada and, even further afield, Drake.


And, finally, does he sing “And through a fracture on that breaking wall” on “Crazy,” or, “And through a fractal…”? If the latter, then Seal, the album, is a most commendable attempt to make some personal sense out of generally chaotic theory.