On What’s Normal Anyway – the seventh track on Miguel‘s new album Wildheart – the Californian singer-songwriter laments his position in society’s pecking order: “Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans / Too square to be a hood nigga … Too opinionated for the pacifist, too out of touch to be in style…”. By the time he gets to the chorus, Miguel has turned the song into an anthem of disaffection that will speak to anyone who’s ever felt socially dislocated.
But What’s Normal Anyway also serves as an accurate summary of Miguel’s career to date. His second, breakthrough album – 2012’s excellent Kaleidoscope Dream – scanned as R&B, but the tricksy song structures and predominance of guitars owed as much to rock music and psychedelia as they did to hip-hop and soul. And, while the album’s hit single Adore sounded like a less carnally-fixated version of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, the rest of the album found Miguel being unnervingly direct in lines like “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” and “Do you like drugs? … Yeah? Well me too”. None of this weirdness prevented Kaleidoscope Dream from being a sizeable success – it reached Number 3 in the American album charts – but it nonetheless set Miguel apart from his peers and created considerable anticipation for this, the long-awaited follow-up.
Compared with the maximalist approach of much of Kaleidoscope Dream, Wildheart is pared down: many of its twelve tracks are based around a single guitar part and supported by the subtlest of embellishments. At times, the pared-down sound is clammy and claustrophobic; on other occasions, it’s indicative of an artist who has absolute confidence in the strength of his songs and doesn’t feel the need to hide them behind excessive instrumentation.
His confidence is well-earned. The melodies across the board on Wildheart are lovely, from opener A Beautiful Exit’s weirdly Syd Barrett-esque verses through to the skyscraping finale Face The Sun (featuring unashamedly bombastic guitar work from Lenny Kravitz). In between, Deal is a murky funk number with a guitar part that sounds like it’s being emitted from the bottom of a swimming pool; Waves and Leaves are the kind of songs that an up-and-coming indie band would kill for, while the slow jam Flesh finds Miguel activating his falsetto to delicious effect.
Wildheart is a touch less carnal than Kaleidoscope Dream. However, on the one occasion Miguel really vents his sexual desires, the results are startling. On The Valley, Miguel sings about what he intends to do with – or, perhaps more accurately, to – his lover. “Confess your sins to me while you masturbate … I wanna fuck like we’re filming in The Valley / I wanna push and shove and paint your hills and valleys” while the chorus is delivered with the dead-eyed insistence of someone reciting online porn search terms: “lips, clit, tits…”.
The Valley is one of Wildheart’s many highlights but the track’s priapism would prove, well, painful if maintained across a whole album. Fortunately, the overriding tone of Wildheart is tender rather than tacky. Lead single Coffee is the wholesome flip side to The Valley – a song about sex that focuses on the post-coital domesticity – “coffee in the morning” – rather than the sex itself. And Hollywood Dreams finds Miguel engaging in blue-sky relationship thinking over an irresistible guitar riff: “we could be better than heroes, baby … we could fly higher than spaceships.”.
The weakest track on Wildheart is NWA which, with its appearance from rapper Kurupt, is the most conventionally ‘urban’ track here. It’s “something for my OGs” on which Miguel walks “with a gangsta lean” and describes a woman who “just wanna fuck till she can’t move no more”. If there’s any irony in these lyrics, it’s buried very deeply. Perhaps Miguel was right about being “too square” to pull this sort of thing off.
This solitary misstep is, however, easily forgiven. Wildheart is a beautiful album from one of the most exciting and talented artists in music right now.