Available on: Star Trak LP
The rise of indie-R&B in 2011 was regrettable for a multitude of reasons, not least its own one-dimensional callowness (in terms of both sonics and personae) [obviously, given The Weeknd topping FACT’s albums of 2011 list, this isn’t a view shared by our entire office – Ed]. The hype around it, though, has masked far more accomplished works of late by established artists in the genre who care little for the bloghype of shut-ins. Last year, Anthony Hamilton, Raphael Saadiq, Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony David all flew the flag for traditional R&B, using organic arrangements with retro nods to create works that both sounded purely pleasurable and showcased their own personae distinctively – and midway through the year, Beyoncé also chose this route to showcase her own maturation as an artist. Joining them in December, too, was Robin Thicke.
Over his five albums since 2003, Thicke has thrown few curveballs or changes of direction at his audience; instead, he has steadily refined his sound and, even more crucially, gradually grown into his persona. It’s a deceptively hard one to pull off: Thicke plays the suave loverman, but there’s also an innate awkward goofiness to him – two traits that don’t naturally reconcile, like trying to simultaneously play both leading man and comedy sidekick. On Love After War, Thicke embraces both sides and is consequently all the more endearing for it: a romantic hero who can sweep you off your feet while making you crack up.
Dominated almost exclusively by smooth, bossanova-tinged soul, much of Love After War feels like a formal dance with a stranger whispering sweet nothings in your ear; there’s even a song entitled ‘Tears On My Tuxedo’, which seems to indicate that Thicke is as amused by the archetype as he is committed to it (on it, he even manages to convince us that he’s more concerned about his paramour’s tears than his tuxedo – just about. And if Thicke sticks resolutely to one sound, he avoids letting its uniformity pall until the very final stretch through understated but irresistible melodic touches – and, in any case, it’s all the more conducive to drifting off into its feather-light reverie (a notable exception comes early on with ‘Never Give Up’, which rolls benevolently and drunkenly along a lavishly orchestrated sample of a Mexican traditional dance).
Beneath it all, though, listening out for Thicke’s more outré moments becomes something of a game. Across the album, he’s sure of his subject – she’s a “lovely lady”, permanently placed atop a pedestal – but less so of himself, shifting from provider of luxury to committed family man to, despite – or perhaps because of – his air of dorkiness, a threatening Casanova. One imagines his tongue is firmly in his cheek on ‘Dangerous’, about as pillowy a cloud of a song as one could imagine, when he sings, “I’m a pterodactyl and you’re a wandering dove.” There’s something rather appealing about Thicke creating a particular atmosphere so perfectly, every detail in place – plucked guitars, layered vocals, background piano that evokes a formal reception in a ballroom – only to insert a metaphor like that into it, simultaneously ludicrous and luxurious. One suspects only someone like Thicke could get away with it.