It’s tough to imagine an American pop star penning a memoir like Tropical Truth. That’s not just because our musical celebs are rarely imprisoned for their aesthetic politics, as Veloso was in Brazil in the late ’60s, but also because few would use an autobiography to analyze the history of concrete poetry, parse new wave cinema, ponder national identity, and—despite 35 years of world-class songwriting—regret choosing music as a career.
How useful you find his approach depends on your expectations. He became a world music figure of note here in the late ’80s via David Byrne’s Beleza Tropical comp, and subsequent reissues have made tropicália—the radical/syncretic ’60s rock movement he shepherded with Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and others—a hipster household name. No one’s really chronicled tropicália for English-speaking lay folk. Veloso does, but its history is salted into a digressively chatty narrative that regularly flashes forward or back to make some larger analytic point. And the man makes a lot of them, clearly more excited to unpack tropicália‘s theoretical underpinnings than to dish dirt or spin tales of rock ‘n’ roll derring-do.
Yet this is pretty much in the spirit of tropicália, which for all its semiotic freeplay was as rigorously conceived an art movement as pop music has produced. During the passages on Veloso’s harrowing and absurd imprisonment by Brazil’s military, he remains both clear-eyed (“My only discovery was that suffering is absolutely useless”) and self-examining.
Ultimately, what Tropical Truth lacks in terms of encyclopedic chronology, it makes up for in charm and smarts. Even when he veers into an academic thicket, you’re happy to follow, like the moments in a great bar conversation that let you fondle your drink stirrer or admire the speaker’s mouth. You’ve gotta love an author who, after declaring his story over, takes 11 more pages to muse on the rise of fundamentalism, quote Kant, and lament that Tropical Truth is not, instead, a bio of his beloved creative “master,” bossa nova kingpin João Gilberto—a book Veloso still aspires to write. Here’s hoping he does.