The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. – C.S. Lewis
It is an under-appreciated truth that listening to music changes your ears. With every new piece of music you listen to, you gain more points of reference that you can then apply to pieces you have never heard before. This is not a controversial view in other media; few people would argue that knowledge of the Bible is irrelevant to the experience of reading Paradise Lost, for example, or that one’s knowledge of kung-fu tropes affects the experience of watching Kill Bill. This is not always true of music. There is something threatening in the idea that we can grow out of the music that we like, which is, after all, an important part of the way that we express our identities both online and among our peers.
I try and keep my snobbery in check, and in fact, this post has nothing to do with the conclusions and opinions I have come to at this point, but rather about my first foray into the world of popular music.
My childhood home was both full of music and strangely devoid of music. I studied piano from a youngish age, so the sound of me practicing was common. Neither my mother nor my father, however, played music much around the house. Music was mostly something that we all listened to in the car. When my mother drove, that meant oldies radio. I can still sing along to most of the big Motown hits. When my father drove, it was classical music. This meant that I had little engagement with the music of the day, beyond those that were so ubiquitous that I heard them in stores, or at school. I had no musical identity apart from the music my parents listened to and the music that I heard on the radio.
There were a couple of signs that things were going to change–acquiring a small radio that I could listen to in my room, the CD I bought at a church-sponsored concert, access to the internet–but as sometimes happens, there was a particular song and a particular artist that I liked completely independently of my parents. I’d like to say that that artist was someone like Radiohead, or the Pixies, or Sonic Youth. Hell, I’d take the Beatles. But no, although now my present snobby self is somewhat ashamed to admit it, that artist was Seal, and the song was “Kiss From A Rose” (perhaps even more embarrassing, my first encounter with the song was through the soundtrack of Batman Forever).
I’m not really sure what my younger self saw in “Kiss From A Rose.” It’s not a bad song, although if I heard it for the first time now, I’d probably be turned off by the heavily produced sound and cheesy 90’s synths, but I don’t know what I heard that made me curious to hear more from Seal, let alone more curious about the wider world of music that I had never explored.
Seal’s first album Seal (1991) established the sound that he would use for most of the 90’s: gentle beats just this side of trip-hop, silky smooth studio production, vocal harmonies on choruses, unquantifiable “uplifting” lyrics and delivery (interestingly, the record was produced by Trevor Horn, former member of The Buggles, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes, all bands that I discovered much later). The songs on the album alternate between big club tracks and moody, downtempo slow jams. Even as tracks like “The Beginning” and “Crazy” put the synthesizer front and center, Seal’s voice is always the focal point of the music. This is a good thing. Even though now I find most of the music, especially the production, tacky, I cannot say anything about Seal’s voice. It’s a voice that’s both husky and smooth, and it can be both intimate and amazingly powerful.
Seal (1994) preserves most of the formula of the first record. Two exceptions are the whimsical “Fast Changes,” with its delightful fauxriental-meets-synthpop bridge, and the distinctly rock flavored “Newborn Friend.“ But in general, any number on either of the records could be swapped with each other.
1998’s Human Beings explores darker territory. The synths are heavier, the lyrics even more melodramatic. It’s music that you could potentially look cool dancing to, but you wouldn’t look like you’re having any fun. Two things that are awesome about this album are 1) the cover, which features a heavily saturated, grungy photo of Seal’s naked (but non-explicit) body in a tortured pose in front of a sickly green backdrop, and 2) the title track, which may be my favorite Seal song.
Since then, Seal’s been coasting a little bit (and with a wife that that, who can blame him?). 2003’s Seal IV returned back to the quasi-uplifting mode that characterized his early albums, with a heaping helping of romantic pap that the younger Seal would never have touched. I enjoy the slightly campy emo/kill myself side of Seal much more than the staid and melodramatic romantic side that he works with now. Another sign of stagnation is the number of tracks that are co-written with others or not written by Seal at all.
2007’s System brings Seal back to his roots. Another smooth dance record made with the help of Madonna’s producer. Seal’s wife, Heidi Klum duets with him on the song “Wedding Day” (awww) and she’s fine, in a bland sort of way. Probably the most interesting thing about the record is that the first single, “Amazing” was nominated for the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance Grammy, which shows how important the big record labels still are (of course, this is only in a world where people give a shit about the Grammys).
Like a kitschy kiss of death to a real career, 2008 brought Soul, a covers album. Rod Stewart has the Great American Songbook, and Seal has classic soul songs from the 60’s.
Seal may not be my go-to artist anymore, but it was still a little bit of a trip listening to his catalogue. It’s nice to have points of reference that mark the different ways that we think as we grow older. The music never changes, but we do and our ears do.