Thursday 18 March 2021

SEAL: Seal


(#502: 4 June 1994, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Bring It On/Prayer For The Dying/Dreaming In Metaphors/Don’t Cry/Fast Changes/Kiss From A Rose/People Asking Why/Newborn Friend/If I Could/I’m Alive/Bring It On (Reprise)


Bring what on? “Take me to that funky place where you and I were born,” he sings. Perhaps you don’t need to ask what “it” is, or if you do need to ask, you’ll never know what “it” is. In the liner note to his second album, Seal amiably explains why he does not print the lyrics of his songs on the sleeves of his records. As with Gilbert O’Sullivan, you get the feeling that he's happy with any interpretations of his words, even if they are “wrong” – for O’Sullivan, the Everly Brothers will always have sung a song about an Irish guy named Cathis Clown. “How many times have you fallen in love with a lyric that you thought went ‘Show me a day with Hilda Ogden and I’ll despair,’ only to find that it went ‘Show me a way to solve your problems and I'll be there’?,” he asks.


It's a fair question, and one of the key questions here – if you view the second Seal album (or, if you go by the Peter Gabriel way of doing things, his second edition) as nothing more than superior dinner party music – is: how strange and unsettling must be a dinner party soundtracked by the words “I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grave”? Then you search online for other people’s interpretations of the lyrics and find “I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey.” Your guess is as good as, or better or worse than, mine, I guess.


For many years I imagined he was singing “To me you’re like a pocket dictionary I apply” but actually he is singing “To me you’re like a growing addiction that I can’t deny.” Love is the drug, and all that. What do I know? Don’t answer that.


You may be relieved, 340 words into this piece, to be reminded that Then Play Long’s primary focus is not on lyrical analysis – there’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere. In any case I think I know what “Kiss From A Rose,” a song Seal wrote back in 1987 when he was broke and living in a squat and which he says he was embarrassed to show anyone until he pulled it out and played it to Trevor Horn while preparing his second album (shades of McCartney and “Yesterday”?), is about. It receives a treatment as fulsome as that which Andrew Powell had given to “Sebastian,” a song which Steve Harley had initially busked on guitar, twenty-one years previously.


Whether that treatment – oboe, strings etc. – is ascribable to Anne Dudley or Wil Malone is not really clear; in the credits of what became commonly known as Seal II, the musicians – some famous, other session stalwarts - are simply listed by name alphabetically. It doesn’t really matter, you see, who is doing what, or where or when; it is the overall picture of the record which Seal wants you to grasp.


What are we meant to grasp? The album’s bookending with “Bring It On” implies a song cycle, and indeed the record plays like one slow, patiently-building meditation on – well, it’s up to you whether this is non-specific emotional centrism or what it truly means; since you are not Seal, the best you can do is guess in the hope of gaining minor empathy.


The songs – or perhaps we should treat the record as one long(ing) song – flow naturally into and from each other. There is an etiolated beauty but also an underlying grievous uncertainty. In terms of the sheer perseverance of its patience, this album might properly belong in a late sixties/early-mid seventies British world of Five Leaves Left, Tumbleweed Connection, The Road To Ruin, One Year and Kid In A Big World (Trevor Horn gained some of his early studio experience working with John Howard and Biddu); a quietly radical dissertation on, or dissection of, what we perceive to be emotion and how we manage to cope with it, handle it and direct it towards a hopefully mutual recipient (or indeed a direct forebear of Seal II, Labi Siffre’s 1972 album Crying Laughing Loving Lying – see in particular the song “Fool Me A Goodnight”). When Joni Mitchell drops by, and drops into Then Play Long for the only time (unless a fiftieth anniversary edition of Blue manages the trick – how could Seal not have known that record?), to add some vocals to “If I Could,” the dovetailing is natural and logical.


Or perhaps simply consider Seal as a benign uncle to Michael Kiwanuka. Seal II, if you misread one potential subtext too deeply, might have been titled Tomorrow’s The Night. “Why must we dream in metaphors?” the singer cries amidst the album’s most moving song. Yet dreaming requires daring. And there is a major, concealed daring in the superficially placid grooves of this record; what, Seal tells us, is going to bring “it” on but “unconditional love”? This means opening yourself up, discarding received notions of yourself and everything around you, and learning to trust. “How will I paint this garden I've destroyed - green?,” he rhetorically demands in “People Asking Why.” Because, he suggests, it is nowhere near too late for any of us.