ZTT / Warner Brothers Records, 1991

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Does size matter? Depends on the context, now, doesn't it?

The first time I heard material from Seal's self-titled 1991 debut album, it was on a friend's mid-80s-vintage cheapo shoulder-strap cassette recorder with a speaker the size (and sound quality) of a bottlecap. Inasmuch as we were listening to it in a professional office setting, it was turned up just loud enough for me to catch the variety of tempos of the songs and a hint of the range of Seal's voice. I was mildly intrigued, but not enough to spend my money just yet. The music just didn't leap out at me -- but then, under those circumstances, how could it?

The next time I heard these songs, Seal and his band were pumping 100-plus decibels through the Rolling Stones' touring rig at the Oakland Coliseum in October 1994. From our lawn seats, the electronic drums, bass and deeper synthesizer tones were heavy enough to set our ribcages vibrating like tuning forks. Seal's vocals were soaring and dramatic and, well, gigantic. In as tough a role as anyone could ask for (open stadium shows for the Stones? That takes cojones, my friend), he held his own and more.

That was all I needed to conclude this six-foot-four Brazilian-Nigerian bloke from London with the big, big sound bore further investigation.

Seal's sound is striking, and clearly a product of his career-long collaboration with noted producer Trevor Horn, formerly of The Buggles and Yes, and producer of hit albums from artists ranging from Rod Stewart to Yes to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Horn and Seal craft pristinely -clean sonic landscapes inhabited by pounding bass lines, pulsing, dynamic synthesizer washes and electric guitar riffs, and alternately faint and thunderous electronic percussion. Alone, these elements make for insistent but fairly antiseptic dance music. Placed alongside the raw emotion of Seal's expressive vocals, the electric sheen of the instrumentation becomes a dazzling complement.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The world first heard of Seal via a single he cut -- "Killer" -- with a local dance club producer. The record took the dance charts by storm, going number 1 in England and landing Seal a contract with Horn's ZTT Records.

"Killer" shows up here in re-recorded form as track four, a throbbing, wildly atmospheric number anchored by a hypnotic bass line and dramatic guitar riffs (which I suspect may be the contribution of Horn's fellow Yes-man Trevor Rabin, though the credits on Seal's albums are notoriously unspecific as to who did what on which track).

Seal chooses to start, however, at "The Beginning," announcing himself to the world in a somewhat melodramatic fashion that is nonetheless befitting the sweep of his music. Opening with a throbbing dance-floor beat, the track blossoms quickly into a wildly complex arrangement propelled by a constantly shifting cast of layered vocals, electronic strings, an Earth, Wind & Fire r&b/funk guitar line, driving electric percussion fills and synsthesizers fills that appear and disappear like ghosts.

"Deep Water" begins as an acoustic ballad, contrasting smartly with its predecessor until it shifts tempos half-way through, suddenly picking up a new bottom and top end with bass, drums, new synth tones and a sweeping string arrangement. The stronger finish leads nicely into the album's hit single, "Crazy," an obvious club track with its propulsive synthesizer melody and driving rhythm section. The Shaft guitar part closing out the bridge is a nice touch, too, demonstrating just how effectively Seal has grafted synthesized dance music onto its funk roots.

"Whirlpool" and "Future Love Paradise" show Seal pushing harder with his lyrics, going for a more personal tone in the former and universal message in the latter. Still, some of the words are hard to make out, making the absence of a lyric sheet a bit annoying (can't help it, Seal's Zen approach to liner notes is incredibly frustrating for an information junkie like me...)

Among the less remarkable trailing songs, "Wild" stands out, again making effective use of layered vocals and adding, subtracting and recombining instruments in a bravura approach to song arrangement that's guaranteed to keep you guessing.

My frequent enjoyment of it aside, Seal's unique sound is not for everyone. If crystal-clean synthesized strings and percussion make you queasy, you'd best stay away; if somewhat melodramatic sentiments of universal brotherhood make you want to roll your eyes, ditto.

Whatever else you can say about Seal's music -- energetic, passionate, imaginatively arranged and exquisitely produced -- subtle, it isn't. It's a big sound, that demands volume to match.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ZTT / Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.