In the wrong hands, “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky” and “Happy” could have become the most cheesy, gimmicky releases of 2013.
In the hands of Pharrell Williams, they became three of the year’s most successful, recognizable tunes.
Prepare to repeat that same story after listening to his new album “G I R L” (which calls “Happy,” the only three of the aforementioned songs exclusively attributed to Pharrell, its lead single).
Lacking Pharrell’s swagger and authenticity, a lesser artist would have struggled to make any of the album’s tracks work. Pharrell finds a way to make all of them succeed.
Indicative of the fact that style can be a gateway to substance rather than a substitute for it, “G I R L” immerses listeners in an atmosphere that is all at once retro, current and, most importantly, true to Pharrell Williams. Its endlessly rich, layered aesthetic transports audiences not to a specific time or genre but to a completely unique state of mind.
That impressive achievement is possible because for all the complexity, nuance and care in the compositions, the album comes across as effortless and honest. It is not a facade. It is not pretense. It is Pharrell’s reality.
Unlike so many attempts to fuse funky grooves with enthusiastically modern production, “G I R L” does not find Pharrell trying create a sound. It finds Pharrell trying to create within a sound that is truly his. The style is used to enhance the hooks, beats and vocal performances rather than to mask them.
That philosophy is what made Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning “Random Access Memories,” to which Pharrell contributed, so successful. It is also what prevented Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” from living up its most lofty expectations.
Lead single “Happy,” like Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky” but unlike Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors,” manages to be radio-friendly without compromising the album’s identity. Whereas “Mirrors” finds Timberlake departing the “20/20″ vibe (and returning to the “FutureSexLoveSounds” era) in a quest for mainstream airplay, “Happy” feels right at home on “G I R L.” No, its lyrics might not be as oversexed and overly metaphorical as the balance of “G I R L,” but the musical philosophy and style are precisely on target.
That helps unpack the difference between “G I R L” and an album like “20/20.” Both are ambitious, daring masterclasses in production, but the latter applies its effort towards creating a compelling sound. “G I R L” focuses on making its authentic, compelling sound work. It has substance beneath its style; steak beneath its sizzle.
The effort works. No song is as right for right now as “Happy,” but no song undercuts the enthralling experience.
Opening track “Marilyn Monroe” is almost flawless in welcoming listeners to the album’s universe. “Brand New,” a duet with Justin Timberlake that is better than almost anything on JT’s most recent album, then does its job of assuring they will stay there.
It would be easy to write off “Hunter” and “Gush” as filler–and it would be hard not to cringe if simply reading their lyrics on paper–but they are not time wasters. Blessed with riveting production and charismatic lead work from Pharrell, they play a valuable (though perhaps not necessary) role in unpacking Pharrell’s universe.
The superb “Happy” brings the album to a peak, while the Miley Cyrus feature “Come and Get it Bae” appealingly pays tribute to “Blurred Lines,” the track that officially put Pharrell back on the map.
“Gust of Wind,” the (thus far) unsung gem of the album, reunites Pharrell and Daft Punk in a collaboration that is just as captivating and exhilarating as their joint work on “Random Access Memories.” The funky, soulful combination of “Lost Queen” and “Freq” keeps listeners’ groove meters high, while the intriguing “Know Who You Are” makes great use of Alicia Keys.
“It Girl” is not the rousing conclusion one might have expected or desired, but it is by no means a bad song.
Though superb, “G I R L” will not hold up to all forms of scrutiny.
As with all of Pharrell’s recent hits, its lyrical content is not designed for close, intellectual reading. The genuine, well-crafted lyrics contribute brilliantly to the album’s overall experience, but if one thinks of lyrical excellence in terms of deep, introspection, he will not find it in the words of “G I R L.”
Because it is so clear in its focus (which can, itself, pass as a creative risk), it does not always take chances in the name of variety. Not one of the songs sounds the same as another, but there are perhaps more elemental redundancies and commonalities than one would anticipate from an album of only ten tracks (and eleven songs).
There is also a clear extent to which Pharrell uses his charm and sincerity as forms of presence. His vocal effort always works, but it is not always powerful or prominent.
When crafting “G I R L,” Pharrell did not seek to develop an album that sounds believably funky and retro. His sound is already funky and retro, and the goal was to create catchy, unique, nuanced music that fits organically into that aesthetic.
“G I R L” releases in the United States the week of March 3
“G I R L” Track Listing
1) Marilyn Monroe
2) Brand New (with Justin Timberlake)
6) Come and Get it Bae (with Miley Cyrus)
7) Gust of Wind
8) Lost Queen/Freq (with JoJo)
9) Know Who You Are (with Alicia Keys)
10) It Girl