If Nelly Furtado’s Folklore proved anything is that mainstream pop audiences (and sadly, most critics) don’t accept change from pop divas and just want them to sing five different versions of their breakthrough hit. And yet in recent history there have been examples of Pop Queens changing their sound and embracing maturity with succesful results. Two shining examples of this type of album are Madonna’s Ray of Light and Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, which may not have been the hit machines some of these women’s previous albums were but still reached the top of the charts and were heralded by critics as milestones in their careers.
Folklore shares much with both the first in that their creators have just given birth and the latter in that an overall sense of depression and nostalgia pervade the albums. But while Madonna got praised for singing about her daughter and the disillusionment of fame, for some inexplicable reason Nelly Furtado was considered, in raising those issues,to be ‘’whining’’ and was labeled as an example of the “sophomore jinx’’.
The album opens with the great “One Trick Pony’’, which begins with a sweeping string section, courtesy of the Kronos Quartet, and sudennly breaks into a danceable banjo-and-violin interchanging with Nelly Furtado singing that she isn’t indeed a one-hit wonder. In the wake of the album’s flop, such a statement seems ironic and by turns sad, considering everything on this disc suggests that Furtado could have been a formiddable pop artist and a successful one, without having to turn to uber-producer/hitmaker Timbaland and compromising her inimitable sound.
One of the most common criticisms of the album was that it lacked the playfulness of her -also great- debut Whoa,Nelly! and while that point is valid,-since most of Folklore is comprised of ballads- there is a number of potentially hit-worthy singles, such as the India-influenced “Powerless” or ‘’Fresh off the boat’’, which recalls her debut in its combination of rapping and guitar licks, coupled with a super-catchy chorus. Elsewhere, folk instruments set against a traditional pop setting make for a unique listen that is enhanced by the album’s pristine-clear production of sweeping sunthesizers, breakbeats and surprising sound effects.
What keeps the album from being superb, though, is that, admittedly, the aforementioned ballads drag the album a bit, especially during the second half, even if some of them are better than anything Bryan Adams has ever sung: the album’s centerpiece “Try” starts with a muted guitar and evolves into a lush, piano-driven chorus with moving lyrics(‘And I see you standing there/Wanting more from me/And all I can do is try’), whereas the perfectly placed “Childhood Dreams”, a 6-minute ode to her daughter, recorded inside a church, closes the album on a euphoric note.
All that remains, in retrospect, is one of the decade’s best pop albums and a tragically overlooked affair, which stands as a sad victim of our society’s bizzare notion that thoughtful songwriting coming from a woman in her late 30s is called maturity, whereas coming from a 24-year old girl is somehow called self-indulgence.