River Deep, Freckle High

Several things that Shakira and Pink have in common, beyond their each having released an album in the last few weeks: (1) They each fought their record companies to gain control of their musical direction. (2) They are each ex non blondes, in that Shakira used to be a brunette, and Pink has recently allowed blondeness to soften her natural fuchsia. In addition, Pink's collaborator Linda Perry used to lead the band 4 Non Blondes, making her an ex non blonde as well. (3) They each write "personal" lyrics with poetic or confessional significance.

Laundry Service is Shakira's first album of new material in three years, and her first ever with songs in English. A reason for the delay is that she wanted to become proficient enough in English to write the English words herself, to ensure they expressed what she wanted them to. Back when the previous studio album, Dónde Están los Ladrones?, had gone multiplatinum, the plan had been to make an English-language version, with Gloria Estefan doing the translating. But Shakira scotched the project. "I can't hire other people to write songs for me," she told Time.

"You're a song/Written by the hands of God," Shakira sings at the start of "Underneath Your Clothes," and my first thought was "It took her three years to come up with this?" The new album is love songs, nothing but love songs, with no fresh insights on the subject. She's in love and the guy is wonderful, or she's in love and the guy isn't wonderful but she can't break away, or she's in love and the guy won't look at her. ("Next to her cheap silicon I look minimal/That's why in front of your eyes I'm invisible.") But she'll express herself in unexpected ways. "Baby I would climb the Andes solely/To count the freckles on your body," the first line of which is cliché, but then . . . freckles? (I once read some North Korean propaganda that asserted, "Kim Il Sung's love for the people is deeper than the deepest river and higher than the highest mountain," but it didn't mention anything about freckles.) She sings "I'll keep chasing the soles of your shoes," which isn't idiomatic English, and it's better for not being so. Same for "There's nothing like your smile made of sun," which would be dull as potato peels if corrected to (how we say in our language) "sunny smile," but as is makes me think the fellow has flames instead of lips on his kisser. And Shakira doesn't just—predictably—feel safe in his arms, but also, due to his presence, feels comfortable enough to overcome her "kitchen phobia."

She's self-conscious about her breasts: "Lucky that my breasts are small and humble/So you don't confuse them with mountains." (Would the proper response to this be "I would climb the Andes solely/To feel the titties on your body"?)

As is true with most lyricists, she's better frustrated than fulfilled. In the song where she's perpetually chasing the soles of the guy's shoes (and thus eating dirt, she implies), she says, "God resigned, from hearing my old story." This is the one line on the album that hits me emotionally.

The album's best song is "Poem to a Horse," which I'm disappointed to say isn't about a girl and her stallion, but just about Shakira's attempts to get a pothead friend to notice her. "So what's the point of wasting all my words/If it's just the same or even worse/Than reading poems to a horse?"

She's one of the most popular singers in the world, and she's got a hugely powerful voice, but my gut feeling is that she doesn't know yet what to do with it. I said the album was nothing but love songs, but really, though she writes nothing but love lyrics, her soundsays something different.

She has no soft songs. Even the ones that are soft in volume are loud in feel, have a hardness or a brightness or a push that says, "Notice me." And most of the soft ones don't stay soft even in volume—her voice is a showstopper, and she writes power-ballad choruses in order to show it.

I haven't worked out how I feel about Shakira's vibrato, which is louder and more powerful, piercing, beautiful, riveting, ravishing, dazzling, etc., etc., etc., than the equivalent of Alanis Morissette (you know, the Canadian girl) and Dolores O'Riordan (you know, the Cranberry girl). A lot depends on how incessantly I want my eardrums to be pierced, ravished, and dazzled. Unlike Alanis, who played the gargle for rawness, Shakira puts a glisten on the gargle, the sparkle gargle, makes it shiny and pretty—and piercing, as I said, so I understand the feelings of Shakira's music teacher back in grade school, who'd kept her off the chorus because he'd thought her voice was like "the bleating of a goat." I'm in thrall, hence find beauty in the bleats; one reason is that the music absolutely moves. Most CDs I play in proximity to hers feel static in comparison. It's an easy movement (unlike American funk and hip-hop, which have a jittery tension). It's this ease that makes her music sound south-of-the-border no matter what, whether the songs are rock, disco, or pop (most have elements of all three); she's from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and the rhythm on her hit single "Whenever, Wherever" is vaguely reggae, which gives the song irresistible momentum: You've got the heave of her voice and the high-powered beats and the panpipes and the whatever-we-can-throw-into-this-thing instrumentation all avalanching at you with this nonstop easy-flowing lilt. Not that I don't sometimes want to pull the "DIVA SHUT UP" lever— but not if it weakens the dance.

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