Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Miguel Wildheart

Miguel Pimentel isn’t some shamanic teller of universal truths. He’s an entertainer. But he’s an entertainer who’s ridiculously good at pretending to be a shamanic teller of universal truths, and sometimes that’s better. Watching Miguel onstage a couple of years ago, I was absolutely dazzled. The man was always going to be famous; he’s too talented and handsome to be anything else. His voice is just as smooth onstage as it is on record, and his hybrid James Brown/Michael Jackson dance moves are more fluid than you’d know from the videos. But I also got the sense, watching him, that he’d been doing those exact same lithe dance steps and uttering the same innuendo-laced stage patter the night before, that he’d be doing the exact same thing the next night. If he’d come along in another decade, he could’ve and probably would’ve been a perfectly conventional R&B star; that’s essentially what he was trying to be on his better-than-anyone-remembers 2010 debut All I Want Is You. But instead, he saw a wave cresting, and he rode that wave. That wave was the early-’10s wave of indie-leaning drug-soul, and he figured out that he could excel at a slick, Prince-infused take on the stuff that people like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd were throwing out into the universe. Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel’s 2012 album, is at least a little bit of a masterpiece, but it’s not a masterpiece the way Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is. Instead, it’s a great example of a true craftsman taking all these ideas floating in the ether, pulling them in, and turning them into top-shelf pop music. He’s still doing that, more or less. But now the currents have shifted, and there are new waves to ride.

The wave that Miguel’s new Wildheart rides is a little harder to articulate than the PBR&B thing that was happening when he brought forth Kaleidoscope Dream into existence. But right now, we’re seeing a whole lot of gifted artists turning black-music traditions into grand, messy reflections on what it’s like to be black in America in this moment: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf. Wildheart is coming closely enough after those albums that it can’t possibly be Miguel’s response to them. But one thing Miguel has shown is a powerful gift for noticing things coming together, ideas that are just starting to take flight. And so Wildheart, in a lot of ways, sounds like the cleaned-up version of what those albums did. When Lenny Kravitz shows up to shred on album closer “face the sun,” his presence makes a certain kind of sense. We can laugh at that guy all we want, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kravitz represented some kind of beautiful dream of a musical future. Kravitz was playing soul music and rock music, at the same time, as pop music, riffing on the greats of the past and finding a then-current way for them to make sense together. That’s what Miguel does, though he’s less obvious about his sources and more artful at combining them.

Like those other recent albums, Wildheart is at least as concerned with grooves as it is with songs. There are exceptions, of course. First single “Coffee” is a fucked-out heart-melter on the same level as first Kaleidoscope Dream single “Adorn,” and it sounds amazing on the radio, mixed in with other radio songs. Tracks like “NWA” and “leaves” have immediate melodies to go along with their exquisite textures. And anyway, sometimes those textures are so pretty that they almost work as hooks themselves. The album exists, quite consciously, in the slipstream of five or six different genres at once. At any given moment, you’ll hear Miguel doing airy R&B falsetto leads over gloomy down-tuned rock guitars and dreamy synth-beeps and glacial Southern-rap bass-tones. There are moments on Wildheart that sound like ambient music, and there are moments that sound like folk. The climax of “leaves” sounds like it could be the theme music to a mid-’00s prime-time soap opera about rich white teenagers falling in love with each other. “Hollywood Dreams” sounds like what late-’70s Stevie Wonder might’ve come up with if you’d asked him to sample the guitar-trudge from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” “DEAL” sounds like Rick James fronting INXS. There’s a lot going on musically, but all these ideas and strains cohere, and it seems like they cohere mostly because Miguel has been watching his peers and taking careful note of what they’re doing.

As it happens, there’s a song about riding waves on Wildheart, but it’s not the kind of wave-riding I’ve been talking about for this entire review. Instead, “waves” is a song about fucking: “I’m putting work in it, baby / Keep working it while I ride that wave.” Practically every song on Wildheart is a song about fucking, or a song about the sort of transcendence that you can achieve through really good fucking. On Wildheart, fucking can make you feel like you’re making porn movies in the San Fernando Valley, or it can make you feel like you’re forming a new religion, or maybe it can do both of those things at the same time. There are songs about other things. There’s “what’s normal anyway,” about being a mixed-race kid and wondering where you belong in the world, or like “leaves,” about returning to California after some time away and learning to love it all over again. But those are the exceptions. The grooves on Wildheart are meant to evoke sex, and they’re also meant to soundtrack it. I can’t remember the last time I heard a major album this focused on the bedroom. And that’s one major area where Wildheart diverges from auteur visions like Black Messiah or To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s not concerned with larger, more sinister forces in the world. It’s about the ways that a couple of bodies can fit together, or maybe about the way that those bodies fitting together can serve to shelter a couple of people from the larger, more sinister forces in the world. And Wildheart works as a sex album because it’s authentically sexy. It’s alternately flirty and intense, and it knows when to be one and when to be another. A year from now, there will be children who owe their existence to this album.

But in its focus on groove rather than song, Wildheart doesn’t take advantage of Miguel’s strengths as a pop craftsman the way Kaleidoscope Dream did. At some points, Wildheart sounds like the work of someone who’s trying hard to make a messy album but who can’t resist polishing things up more than he probably should. In that way, Miguel is like the well-brought-up punk kid who’s trying to look perfectly at home in the dive bar but who still runs back to the apartment to change his shirt when he spills some beer on it. It’s a beautiful album in a lot of ways, but it’s not the equal of its predecessor. It leaves me eager to hear what Miguel will do next, especially if he plays to his strengths a little more next time. Hopefully, the right wave will come along again.

Wildheart is out 6/30 on RCA. Stream it at NPR.

Tags: Miguel