Nelly Furtado, that most idiosyncratic and winsome of pop stars, will probably never have a hit again. The Ride, her sixth album and first in five years, seems to accept this. Like Vanessa Carlton’s Liberman and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, its purpose is not to sell through the name of its star but to be critically acclaimed and sell through word of mouth and Metacritic scores.
It’s a shame, then, that Furtado doesn’t let… well, loose a bit more here. She essentially has carte blanche to do whatever she wants at this point. In fact, a more experimental album would arguably be better for her sales because it would be a better album, critics would know it, and people who read those critics would buy it. Her best and most successful album, Loose, is one of the oddest pop albums ever made, sounding more like digital Tropicalia-punk than anything else, and that didn’t stop it from selling astronomically. Why, then, does The Ride feel so staid?
Much of the blame falls on the production, handled by indie rock go-to guy John Congleton. There’s a muddiness in the mix that has more in common with the fashionably mid-fi production on early-‘00s albums by bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes; everything feels slightly detuned, and the chord changes feel sluggish. A pop singer like Furtado needs sharp angles and clean chords for her melodies to really wiggle into the brain and work. With so little harmonic structure behind them, the hooks here trail off into nothing and refuse to stick. Furtado knows catchy, but too often on The Ride she sounds like she’s leading a band that doesn’t.
Someone like Adele can get away with boring production because their presence so completely chews the scenery that too much ornamentation would put up an unfair fight. Furtado isn’t like that. Though she has a lot of personality — and she’s quite likable, too — her voice is thin, and she’s not at pains to exert herself. Even on her biggest hits (“Maneater”, the transcendent “I’m Like a Bird”), she uses her vocals as much for texture as anything else. She’s out of her element fronting a rock band, which is what The Ride often sounds like, and the best songs bring plenty of vocal layering to the table, like the upward flying flock of falsetto Furtados on standout “Live”.
The catchiest songs here are the ones that borrow from other artists. “Sticks and Stones” rips its melody almost wholesale from Alessia Cara’s “Scars To Your Beautiful”, and the chorus of “Cold Hard Truth” stomps like Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”. These are both far better songs than Furtado’s versions, especially the Swift song; biting her sound is bold. After I took my headphones off following my first run through The Ride, I thought back at what I’d just heard to see what melodies I remembered. I just ended up getting the Cara song stuck in my head.
You’d think Furtado, who has a mischievous ear for sound, would use her current exile from the charts as an opportunity to splash around a bit. Congleton’s certainly no stranger to out-there sounds; he manned the boards on the last few Xiu Xiu albums, which feature some of their deepest excursions into ero-guro electronica. And though he’s a safe bet, there are tons of other young producers who could work wonders with Furtado. Just imagine a Furtado/Hit-Boy joint.
The Ride isn’t a bad album. Some of the songs here are quite solid, though none are great. “Tap Dance” is a sort of higher-stakes update of Britney’s “Private Show”, with Furtado dancing for her lover like their future depends on it. “Live”, which reminded me oddly of Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights”, is the best and catchiest thing here. Some of the ballads are nice, especially “Pipe Dreams”, with all its organs, and the drumless ambient wash of “Phoenix”.
The problem with The Ride is just that it’s a lot duller than it should be, and it feels even more disappointing given that her most successful work is also her most eccentric. Loose might be the only album aside from Miles Davis’ On The Corner that got called sellout despite actually being more out-there than the artist’s prior work (and the fact that Loose is comparable at all to On The Corner is proof enough of how brazen Furtado’s music can be). Hopefully Furtado will come to thrive in the indie world, but for now, she sounds like she’s still getting used to it. C PLUS