opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
Back when Pharrell Williams’s main job was the Neptunes, he helped peddle an uncompromisingly strange, cold brand of minimalism that went on to significantly define a generation of pop music. After his work took a nosedive in the mid-‘00s with terrible work both solo and with N*E*R*D*, Pharrell resurfaced last year with a commercial home run – “Happy,” “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines” – that had about as much in common with the Neptunes’ iconic work on records like Clipse’s Hell Hath No Furyas with black metal. Like his collaborators Daft Punk, instead of aggressively chasing a new musical future as he once had, Pharrell’s 2013 hits were comfortable, sepia-hued exercises in the pop forms of yesteryear, and his new album G I R L is stuck rigidly in the same camp. It can be argued – in the publicity blitz for their last album, Pharrell's collaborators Daft Punk tried as hard as anyone – that this sort of sonic shift is some kind of radical reaction to digitization, declining industry relevance, and the democratizing power of the internet. Probably not, though, since Daft Punk about-faced with Random Access Memories after retrospect had teased out the latent brilliance of their initially maligned and most coldly technological album Human After All; G I R L, on the other hand, follows on the heels of years of disastrous misfires and, eventually, silence from the former Neptune. Pharrell changing up his game stylistically isn’t a twist, it’s the only way any record label in its right mind would hand the guy a budget. To put it another way: listeners had to at least contend, even if only to dismiss, with Daft Punk’s artistic ambitions on Random Access Memories, but need not do the same with G I R L, because this record has no artistic ambitions, only commercial ones. Fans will probably defend this as “harmless ear candy.” Is that all you’ve got?
With its syrupy falsetto harmonies, funky guitar jabs, and grandly sweeping strings, G I R L’s aesthetic is firmly rooted in classic R&B models, with a hip-hop boost in the rhythm section and perfunctory nods to disco and late-‘90s chart-pop. Raise your hand if you’re surprised by that combination of elements, and keep it up if you hear even one thing over the course of this album that surprises you. Calculated to death and buffed to an immaculate sheen, all dressed up with no motivation to go anywhere: that’s G I R L. It sounds expensive as hell and even more boring. I know familiarity sells and selling is this record’s raison d’être, but the sense of déjà vu here is suffocating. What to do with neurotic, string-swamped opener “Marilyn Monroe,” which cobbles together pieces of “Pusher Love Girl,” “Suit & Tie,” “Strawberry Bubblegum,” and “Tunnel Vision” into a belated six-minute trailer for The 20/20 Experience. Trouble is, Pharrell’s buttery, likable-but-not-lovable falsetto lacks Justin Timberlake’s expertly communicated underpinning of anxiety and his innate, radiant charisma (not that those qualities are in evidence when Timberlake himself shows up on “Brand New” and fails to wring sentiment from an awkward analogy to “the text in the morning”). The real embarrassment is that more than the work of his peers or his idols, mostly Pharrell’s just ripping off himself to seriously diminished returns. Thought “#GETITRIGHT” was the best track on Miley Cyrus’s godawful Bangerz? Try “Come Get It Bae,” an identical Miley team-up that’s not truly worse than its predecessor only because nothing could possibly be worse than that. Couldn’t get enough of the insipid, inane, and insidious Oscar nominee (?)(!) “Happy,” from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack? Good news: it’s on G I R L, and it’s still irritating.
Rock bottom, though, is “Hunter,” the album’s “Loved ‘Blurred Lines’?” moment. It’s pretty disheartening that after the tempestuous controversy surrounding Pharrell’s Robin Thicke collaboration, he still found it appropriate to trot out “Hunter,” which is just as sleazy, cocksure, and sexist, and somehow even more suggestive of rape. Some sample triggers from hell: “Just because it’s the middle of the night, doesn’t mean I won’t hunt you down.” “If I can’t have you, nobody can! That’s the animal speaking who’s going to hunt you down.” “’I ain’t never smoked this before!’ Some would say it’s time to go.” “Taxidermy is on my walls with full descriptions of the killing cause. I’m a hunter!” Right, because who’s not turned on by being compared to taxidermy trophies, handed an unfamiliar drug from someone you just met, treated as both prey and private propety, and “hunted down” in “the middle of the night,” right ladies? And the attribution of the malevolent male libido on display here to undeniable, biological animal impulse is a particularly toxic ingredient. Is the lesson Pharrell learned from the violent reaction to “You know you want it” really that he should blur the lines further? This is an exceptionally pernicious misogynist fantasy, and unlike its predecessor, which at least boasted a (ahem) potent melody, it doesn’t even have the apolitical back door of a catchy tune. I find it genuinely chilling to think that someone might get to the line “Duck Dynasty is cool and all” and still press on to the end of the track with nary a shrug.
Should you make it to the other side of "Hunter," good for you, but I wouldn't say it was worth it. Just as the absence of co-Neptune Chad Hugo from Pharrell’s DOA solo debut In My Mind inadvertently revealed that the dark intensity of the duo’s vision was largely Hugo’s territory, the absence of Daft Punk from nine of the ten songs on G I R L confirms what no one should have doubted: it was Daft Punk’s genius, not their guest vocalist, that propelled the “Get Lucky” juggernaut last summer. Unsurprisingly (there I go again, not being surprised), then, the finest track on G I R L is The One With Daft Punk, “Gust Of Wind.” Nothing on this album comes close to touching “Get Lucky,” but “Gust Of Wind” does its damnedest, with the robotic Frenchmen supplying harmonizing vocoders to the chorus as elaborate disco-via-French Touch strings weave playfully in and out of the mix. It’s not just the most entertaining and melodically memorable thing on G I R L, it’s also the most daring and inventively crafted track in a collection that plays it devastatingly safe.
“Gust Of Wind” is followed by the eight-minute dud “Lost Queen,” which sounds like Jack Johnson fronting a college-quad drum circle. “What planet are you from, girl, / And are there others like you there?” goes the opening line. Unfortunately, G I R L itself hardly raises the same question. D-