Review Summary: "On this album, I wanted to put words that didn't get in the way of the music. Before, I always let the words dominate." - Saul Williams, 2011
Saul Williams is a name often praised by his peers in the industry as well as the devoted fanbase earned over his lengthy career. With a rich creative output including 3 full-length albums, mutiple EPs, films appearances and published books, his works have appealed to both alternative hip-hop fans and poetry aficionados alike. Despite the undeniable talent he possesses, many have found his CDs and their sociopolitical themes a little hard to digest and lacking in the musical department. While Williams flirted with mainstream success on his previous album (due largely to the involvement of Nine Inch Nails frontman, Trent Reznor), The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust
, this latest effort ditches the industrial influences, rather shockingly, much of the hip-hop aspect for what can only be described as pop. Volcanic Sunlight
opts for a more vibrant, organic sound with a collection of tracks featuring stronger songwriting at their core. This is evidenced by recent live shows where Williams now performs the material with a live band in a variety of arrangements.
Throughout the album, Williams does much more singing as opposed to talking or rapping. Catchy hooks are plentiful and on multiple occasions I found myself nodding along to a beat well before any vocals entered. Yet, we are ushered into Volcanic Sunlight
with a full 30 seconds of Williams' trademark spoken word lyricism - unaccompanied by any music. Perhaps this is by design to ease listeners into what is a large departure from past productions. However, this is short-lived as with the utterance of "close your eyes and count to one," a lone drumbeat inserts itself; it slowly evolves into a singable chorus with a full band rhythm carrying the upbeat energy which fills the majority of the album. Things are kept interesting with this energy taking form in the shape of various styles ranging from soul-infused rock to underground club inspired tunes. Lead single "Explain My Heart" could be passed off as forgettable if not for the unique African percussion adding a colorful layer to distinguish it from other popular acts.
Do not be fooled into thinking that there is no lyrical substance here. While there is great importance placed on the musical foundation of each song, this is of course not an instrumental album. And when Saul Williams opens his mouth on record, you can be sure that something intelligent will come out. What is noticeable is the radical shift in content from previous work. No longer fueled by anger and aggression, most of the tracks focus on the central theme of love - the search for love, understanding that love once it's been found, the absence of love and beginning love anew. The driving emotions may have changed, but the passion behind them remains as strong as ever. It's hard not to sense a connection on songs like "Triumph" where Williams laments the reality of the unfortunate as he thinks of those who cannot experience the love he feels.
An arguable point of weakness emerges midway through the album with "Girls Have More Fun." In this section, the diverse arrangements found earlier are replaced with uncharacteristically light, anthemic dance-pop fare. Still, devoid of emotional weight as they may be, these tracks are very serviceable, fun dance numbers. To count this as a negative seems a mistake because this is clearly what their creator intended them as. It's a fact most apparent on the aptly titled "Dance" where atop a pulsing, sampled beat, Williams urges the listener seeking a higher understanding to simply join him and dance.
The pattern is changed up significantly on the final three tracks. "Fall Up" sees a laid back funk groove paired with softly sung words of hope and encouragement. It is here that Williams delivers one of his strongest vocal performances to date; his delivery conveying the message in a way that resonates deeply. This more relaxed vibe continues through to the end with "Innocence" and "New Day" - the former of which dissolves into Williams reciting a lengthy passage as thought-provoking as something one would encounter on Amethyst Rock Star
Although Williams proclaims on the title track "music heightens poetry / meaning makes me dance," striking the perfect balance between these elements is a not an easy task. Whether this newfound direction marks a permanent change remains to be seen. However, with Volcanic Sunlight
, Saul Williams graduates from a poet-who-also-happens-to-make-music into an accomplished writer whose credentials as a musician can now also stand on their own. The music manages to project Saul's distinctive personality and character while being much more accessible to a wider audience. Longtime fans may find themselves reaching back into his discography for that extra helping of wisdom, but there is plenty here to satisfy the appetite of both the new fan as well as the old craving to sink their teeth into something fresh.