Review Summary: Raising the bar.
This album wasn’t supposed to be this good. In 2005, Shakira released two albums in two different languages with only a few months separating them. The Spanish-language first part, “Fijación Oral Vol. 1
” was impressive because of its numerous influences. The final result was a superb collection of varied and genuinely great pop songs. But having come from a hit as big as “Whenever, Wherever”, the label wanted Shakira to generate another chart-topper. The liberty to experiment (by mainstream pop standards, anyway) that was given to her in the Spanish album would probably mean that the English album, inheritor of all the “commercial” responsibility, would be packed with radio-ready, meaningless tracks. But then again, this is Shakira, not just some standard pop chick.
Both musically and lyrically, “Oral Fixation Vol. 2
” is a much more enjoyable listen than other representatives of its genre, even for those normally not into it. The tracks swing between both extremes of pop-rock. Guitars and drums violently dictate the tone of “Costume Makes the Clown” while electronic beats and synthesizers ease the mood of “Timor”. But in neither case do the songs become predictable. In the former, the heavy instrumentation is occasionaly interrupted, allowing one or two verses to be sung or even whispered, right before returning vigorously; in the latter, the impact of the chorus is heightened by carefully placed guitar notes. A track such as “Hey You” can’t be found anywhere else in the mainstream pop realm. The same guitars and drums commonly used to drive rock tracks forward sound like toys here, enhancing the playful atmosphere of the song. “Animal City” towers over the others as the highlight of the album, combining a compelling chorus with a slow-progressing verse, while Shakira sings about the cruel show business world she was taken into. And even though the love ballads don’t (because they can’t) stray too far from what is usual, Shakira goes a long way to expand their limits, as heard in the bridge from “The Day and The Time”.
Whenever the tracks, especially the slow ones, which tend to do that more, begin to become somewhat bland, they can rely on Shakira’s exotic voice to deliver them. That’s the case of “Dreams for Plans” and “Your Embrace”. Highlight “Illegal” doesn’t need such help, though. Here, the great vocal performance is merely a bonus. But the one thing that is consistent throughout the entire album are the lyrics, which are unique, to say the least. It’s remarkable the way that the feelings are comprised into her verses. Such feelings can go from heartbreak (“Illegal”) to resentment (“Don’t Bother”) to accusatory (“Timor”) without sounding unnatural, and that’s due solely to her innocence, which, I should add, is different from naivety. Maybe it’s because English is her second language, but regardless of the reasons, Shakira’s songwriting is not cocky, which means the only thing that matters is making the point, without any consideration to how childish she may sound. And the funny thing is, at the end of it all, she never does.
“You said you would love me until you die / And as far as I know, you’re still alive
” are lines that most artists, mainstream pop ones included, are too self-conscious to even consider singing. But here, they sound refreshingly sincere. The end of a relationship gains a whole new meaning in “Dreams for Plans”, where the break-up is only part of a bigger, more personal process. “Have I changed my hopes for fears / And my dreams for plans"
” Dreams are illogical, but beautiful. Plans are painfully rational, and the realization that they are the ones who have to prevail is devastating. In “Animal City”, she shares her exhaustion with fame, and reveals the gruesomeness of that world. “I want to save you from all the fame / Save you from the things that cause us pain / ‘Cause it’s an animal city / It’s a cannibal world / So be obedient, don’t argue / Some are ready to bite you
”, she sings. Elsewhere, the funny sexuality of “Hey You” is a sharp contrast to the filthy way other artists address the theme, while “Costume Makes the Clown” is a self-punishing, desperate attempt to reconcile with a lover after a betrayal. However, Shakira can ask uncomfortable questions. She does so in “How Do You Do”, whose lyrics about God wouldn’t sound out of place in albums of any genre. Closer “Timor” points fingers at the sarcastic way the rich half of the world pretends to care about the poor half.
The global hit “Hips Don’t Lie” was not in the original version of this album. It was hurriedly recorded after the lead single failed to achieve commercial success. But, given the fact that Shakira was allowed to do basically everything she wanted with this album, she can’t really complain about having to record ONE ready-for-charts track. Neither can we. Playful genre-mixing, skillful songwriting and a danceable mega hit. Mainstream pop can’t really get much better than this.