Before I get into this absolutely lovely new Miguel album, I’d like to say a quick word about the Mountain Goats. The Mountain Goats are quite possibly my favorite band on the face of the earth, but their albums almost never reveal themselves to me right away. It takes months, maybe years, for them to fully sink in and become a part of my headspace. Get Lonely only really started making sense to me, mattering to me, maybe last year, when that album was like five years old. And so Transcendental Youth, their new one, isn’t my favorite album of the week, though god knows it could be in a month or a year or a decade. In the beginning, I always get all caught up in second-guessing John Darnielle’s musical decisions, feeling slightly disconsolate about how far they move from previous albums (what the fuck dude, horns?), and it takes me a while to figure out why those work, how they support the words. I’m working on it. It’ll take me a while. In a slower week, I might’ve gone all-in, listened to Transcendental Youth day and night, attempted to piece together some rough idea of it so I could write this thing about it. But this week, there’s this absolutely glittering gem of a Miguel album, and I just can’t bring myself to listen to much of anything else.
A few years ago, Miguel seemed like the sort of fabulously talented R&B singer who routinely gets lost in the major-label shuffle. His “All I Want Is You” was a great single, but ask Jazmine Sullivan what a great single or two have done for her. But then the whole hipster-soul wave of the Weeknd and Frank Ocean happened last year, and you could almost see the figurative lightbulb clicking on over Miguel’s head all the way on the other side of the country. Around the same time Drake was releasing Take Care, his own excellently fleshed-out take on that sound, Miguel was starting to toss out his series of Art Dealer Chic EPs for free online. Those EPs were messy and inconsistent, but the languid drug-soul at their core showed a way forward for Miguel. See, Miguel, like Frank Ocean before him, is an absolute professional: Someone who knows where to put the bridge, who knows the exact right moment to bust out his unearthly buttery falsetto. But he’s also an adventurous enough soul to use those gifts for dizzy zoned-out meditations on sex and drugs — songs that give you an idea that this guy loves losing himself completely in those things, which is what those things are supposed to be for anyway.
The most perfect moment on the Art Dealer Chic EPs was “Adorn,” a Prince-damaged slow-dissolving love-as-sex ripple that’s become an unlikely radio hit over the last couple of months. It’s not unlikely because there’s anything amateurish about it; it’s unlikely because its sort of elegant simplicity hardly ever exists anymore on rap and R&B radio. It’s been fun and jarring to watch a succession of rappers attempt to clumsily freestyle over it, never quite figuring out what to do with it. And that’s because the song is an intimate sigh, and it just doesn’t invite rappers’ attention. It’s utterly whole on its own. The track mesmerized on Art Dealer Chic, but it’s actually improved with omnipresence, its virtues standing out even more clearly on the hundredth listen. And credit Miguel with knowing what he had here. Because “Adorn” isn’t just the first song on Kaleidoscope Dream; it’s the starting point for the entire enterprise, the dry run. The rest of the album hones in on that song’s power and attempts to draw it out to album length. And, incredibly enough, it succeeds.
On most versions of Kaleidoscope Dream, there’s a bonus remix of “Adorn” with a Wiz Khalifa guest verse. Ignore that one. Just delete it unheard. It’s not terrible or anything, but its pointlessness stretches an otherwise marvelous little album way more than it needs to be stretched. With that gone, there’s only one guest on the entire LP: A barely noticeable Alicia Keys, singing in the background on “Where’s The Fun In Forever.” A few of the album’s synth bits nod vaguely in the general direction of EDM, but that sound has been hijacking so many commercial R&B albums lately that it’s fun to hear Miguel treating it with the reserve it deserves. For the most part, we’re in the Weeknd’s sonic territory here: Slow and languorous tempos, pillowy synths, delicate little ripples of fuzzed-out psych-rock guitar, neck-snap beats smothered in vast volumes of melodic honey. But Miguel is an infinitely more versatile and assured singer than Abel Tesfaye. And he’s also a more complicated character than Tesfaye’s nihilistic love-bandit.
Like Tesfaye, Miguel can sing some real assholistic player shit. “How Many Drinks,” for instance, is where Miguel spends an entire song asking a romantic prospect how many drinks he’ll have to buy her before she’ll fuck. “I don’t wanna waste my time, I don’t wanna waste your time,” he coos. But he’s doing it sweetly, with self-awareness, the utter baldness of his hustle part of its charm. “Pussy Is Mine” pushes that conceit even further, with Miguel singing about vagina ownership over a bare, bluesy acoustic guitar figure. There’s some studio chatter at the beginning and end, Miguel fronting like he didn’t know anyone was recording the thing and he was just fucking around and murmuring to himself in the studio (though that wouldn’t explain the perfect little keyboard-blips that hover in the background). He’s a total con man there, of course, having it both ways and making it clear that he can get away with it because he sounds like that.
And he sounds a lot realer when he drops the player act and just opens up. This, for instance, could never be a Weeknd lyric: “My pride is waving a white flag.” Album closer “Candles In The Sun” is pure gooey hippy-dippy the-world-is-fucked nonsense, with Miguel singing about the world’s ills without ever offering up anything specific. Here’s how he starts: “Is there a God? / Is He watching? / Is She watching / Are They watching now?” Again: You don’t let loose with open-hearted babble like that unless you really mean it. And just like the rest of the album, he delivers the lines with such elegant reserve, over music so vaporously pretty, that it just forcibly pries involuntary contented sighs from you anyway.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Flying Lotus’s sleep-logic bass music opus Until The Quiet Comes.
• The Mountain Goats’ horn-soaked mental-health exploration Transcendental Youth.
• Taken By Trees’ sun-dazed exotica excursion Other Worlds.
• Moon Duo’s hypnotically fuzzed-out pedal-masher Circles.
• Matt & Kim’s hectic, permagrinning Lightning.
• Beth Orton’s stately and long-awaited Sugaring Season.
• The self-titled debut from Nigel Godrich’s new band Ultraísta.
• Tori Amos’s retrospective collection of old-song reimaginings Gold Dust.
• WHY?’s incisive and self-deprecating indie-pop LP Mumps, Etc.
• The self-titled debut from Brooklyn evil-throb duo ERAAS.
• Beacon’s smooth haze-pop EP For Now.
• Mark Eitzel’s haunted solo effort Don’t Be A Stranger.
• Sun Airway’s synth-rocking sophomore joint Soft Fall.
• Departures’ warm, locked-in postpunk album Still And Moving Lines.
• Generationals’ stately indie-rocking long-player Lucky Numbers.
• Dark Dark Darks’ chamber-folk full-length Who Needs Who.