Dancing Up the Charts

If you want to be an R&B or rap star, appear on someone else's hit record. Disco divas did it back in the day: Luther Vandross sang on a zillion dancefloor classics before he busted out with his own. But it's not so easy for today's aspiring dance music deity. America has for years insisted its club songbirds remain faceless unless they're willing to turn themselves into spectacles on the level of Madonna, Janet Jackson, the Prodigy's Keith Flint, RuPaul. We love a big freak, ignore the little ones.

Seal's one of the lucky few who's sustained a career launched in the dance ghetto without coming across the least bit desperate. He scored one of the '90s' biggest won't-go-away hits, the Batman tie-in "Kiss From a Rose," posed on two album covers in a row as a nudie-patoodie, and still doesn't seem overexposed. The London-born son of Nigerian immigrants is an instantly recognizable mystery, a voice you know well soaring out of a man who resists knowing. To most, he's an adult contemporary icon less offensive than Celine Dion. But those who collect his remixes understand that Seal got his break teaming up with Brit pop-dance boffin Adamski, singing on the original version of the U.K. chart-topper "Killer," also rerecorded for Seal's debut album.

True to Seal's dual status, his latest, Human Being, isn't at all a dance album and yet its fastidious aural fabric is woven from the same digitized material as the most tech-heavy drum 'n' bass. For a guy who gushes about Joni Mitchell, Seal has allowed his producer, Trevor Horn, plenty leeway to shape him into an easy-listening Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Matching slight folksy hooks to sweeping, keyboard-based prog-pop, the Seal-Horn partnership has focused on grand emotive constructs that are at once ornate, naive, and vibe intensive. A typical Seal track establishes a frame of mind without giving you a clue as to what's on hismind. Can anybody tell me what "Kiss From a Rose" is about? I thought not.

The more unadorned and immediate his voice sounds, the longer a posse of 23 engineers working in 13 studios must have slaved.
Jean Baptiste-Mondino
The more unadorned and immediate his voice sounds, the longer a posse of 23 engineers working in 13 studios must have slaved.

Human Beingabandons the formula of the first two albums for retro guitars that suggest what Duncan Sheik would sound like at 10 times the budget— a highly stylized rendering of naturalness that's often even better than the '70s chamber-rock it fakes. The more unadorned and immediate Seal's voice sounds, the longer Horn and a posse of 23 engineers working in 13 studios spread out over three countries must have slaved. (And let's not forget those 22 guitarists, keyboardists, and programmers.) Listen closely to the excess and you can practically hear ELO's spaceship touching down next to Fleetwood Mac's Lear jet for tea.

Seal's fans aren't the sort that generate Web sites, but he does have a typically abstract one of his own (www.ascender.underground.net) where one can infer from what looks like a long stream of journal entries that Seal almost got married during the long process of recording the album, but the woman backed out, which left him brokenhearted and consulting his guru to find a positive message in it all. The first single, "Human Beings," features the maxim "When you lose your self-esteem, that's when love dies." I agree, but the thought comes out of nowhere in a song the press release says "deals explicitly with the tragic death of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G." No one but Seal and his publicist would conclude this from a sing-song chorus that, despite the arrangement's moody orchestral sweep, evokes the unforgettable ditty from Walt Disney's Lady and the Trampthat went "We are Siamese if you please."

Like a Rorschach test, Seal's lack of lyrical logic invites bizarre associations: when you have no idea what someone's singing about, you fill the void with your own meaning. Seal's dread of wordplay specifics is balanced by Horn's wealth of sonic detail. Whereas tracks from the last often assaultive album like "Newborn Friend" and "I'm Alive" only clicked in the radical dance revisions, the beats on "State of Grace" and other brooding downtempo jams sound as though they were played live, then sampled and processed: someone's obviously been listening to Portishead. Seal's also scaled down his vocal bombast while he explores the deeper end of his register. The restraint suits him, as he luxuriates in Horn's symphonic bubble bath.

Meanwhile, Adamski's comeback attempt, Adamski's Thing(ZTT/Universal), is probably destined to join its predecessors in the bargain bin, but not because it doesn't drastically improve on them. Earlier albums relied on guest vocalists and repetitive instrumentals. This one features Gerideau, a cult fave from the New Jersey Garage scene who's racked up multiple house hits overseas. His swooping tenor could easily qualify him as a future Dru Hill thug, but instead he takes the high road, splattering his soul against his partner's wildly playful rock-techno concoctions, as Seal once did eight years ago.

Adamski first hit the indie charts when he was 11 with Stupid Babies, a punk joke featuring his five-year-old brother on vocals. Although his songwriting ability hasn't progressed much (a typical Adamski chorus repeats the title four times, a tactic that's particularly silly on "Intravenous Venus"), he compensates with kaleidoscope arrangements for guitars and electronica. His newfound association with Horn's ZTT label, the home of Seal's first two albums, means his punk impulses are played out with a Technicolor palette: "Climbing Up" shifts back and forth between quaint string quartet verses and wacky glam guitar-led choruses. "Ascendere verso la cima," the final cut, fully flaunts over-the-top ZTT aesthetics— opera divas duke it out with the wailing Gerideau as vintage new wave dance beats gallop away. Seal may have finally found sonic nirvana, but it's Adamski who rocks the Pleasuredome.

 
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