Otra Cosa, Julieta Venegas
Sony International, México
by Andrew Casillas
Here’s a question that’s been asked many times before: What’s the role of a critic with regard to analyzing a new product from one of their favorite artists? Is the vanguard of impartiality still applicable? Can the writer truly divorce themselves from their passion and discuss the piece as blindly as the casual observer? If forced to distill their review into a simplified measurement (thumbs up, B+, 8.4, etc.), at what point does the artist begin? At absolute zero, or do their past triumphs require an inflated starting point, or could it be fair to cynically hold their success against them, forcing each work to dig themselves out of a preconceived hole? And to go the other route, should the audience have the revelation presented to them and the subsequent critiques reflect this? What level of disclosure would thus be required? How fine is the line between critical thinking and fanboy OCD, and how does/should each affect the other?
Each of us has our favorite artists in our favorite mediums, and the tantalizing prospect and giddy thrill of each new release by those few is what sustains and maybe even validates the importance we place on art. That’s exactly the type of musician that Julieta Venegas is for me—and why this review prompted the series of questions included supra.
But then there’s this question: Why Julieta Venegas? Well, let’s take a moment to think about the state of pop music. Pop in the post-Beatles era has been analyzed as having little real musical flexibility—not because everything literally sounds the same, but because the dynamics of how the music is made have become limited. For instance, say you’re writing a pop song: what do you need? Usually, a singer (and not even a great singer at that), guitars (dexterity not mandatory), something to keep the beat (drum/machine/keyboard effect all acceptable), probably a bassline to highlight your beat (oh wait, you have no bass player? How rebellious!), and maybe a piano (to class things up); from this point, all you do is accentuate and decorate that basic structure. Then there are the lyrics, which fall into one of basically two camps: catchy or reverent. If you’re lucky, these two blend; if you’re unlucky, you could still make the argument that the words don’t matter when it becomes that damn catchy. But regardless, the vast majority of lyrical content is vapid, tenuous, and mostly predictable in form and meaning.
Julieta Venegas matters because she’s routinely excelled within these limitations. Her debut album Aquí and its follow-up, the masterful Bueninvento, were cathartic expressions of adulthood and maturity in a frequently immature world. But while those works were singled out for their alterna-rock structure and occasionally obtuse instrumentation, they still fit the basic pop structure like a glove. Then there was the release and polarizing reaction to her overt pop turn on Sí, which was pretty much the rock en español equivalent of Dylan plugging in, but then there’s the shocking realization from that record—her music arguably got better. By opening herself up to “disposable” pop forms, she began writing more standard love songs, yet these songs were still informed by the perspective of her previous incarnation. These were love songs filled with fear, confusion, and uncertainty—they just happened to be dressed in the right combination of disco beats and keyboard hooks to attract the radio listener. Limón y Sal seemed to reinforce this philosophy, providing a natural link between the frantic, nose-pierced, pop star-in-disguise Julieta and the precise, designer dress-wearing, pop star emeritus Julieta (re-listen to the delightfully two-faced “Canciones de Amor” sometime to understand what I mean).
Throughout this casual progression, Julieta Venegas’ music changed its clothes, but always retained the hallmarks of her iconography: a simple (but not simplistic) musical structure, and lyrical dynamism and ambiguity. Julieta Venegas’ best songs always sound like they’re being made for other singers to reinterpret, but like Cole Porter or Carole King, she’s just getting first-crack at them. Her MTV Unplugged album virtually backs up this point, with her new takes on songs like “Lento,” “Limón y Sal,” and “Cómo Sé” virtually changing the meaning of their original recordings.
So it goes without saying that Otra Cosa is a very difficult record to review. The fan in me wants this to be the link between Bueninvento and Limón y Sal, where Julieta breeds unabashed adventurism with her pop songwriting style, perhaps with a dash of the musical sparkle of the Unplugged record. In reality, Otra Cosa is her most measured album to date. Recorded after Julieta spent most of 2009 re-charging at home after the long Unplugged tour, the entire affair is marked by how focused and relaxed it is.
“Amores Platónicos” continues Julieta’s streak of breathtakingly complex album openers. Anchored by a piano hook straight out of Hu Hu Hu, the song takes a whimsical approach (the song’s antagonist is a garden) common to many pop lyrics, but shrouds the reflections in a wise bitterness (“Prefiero amores platónicos, consuelo de tontos solitarios. Prefiero amores imposibles, consuelo de haber perdido demasiado.”). This juxtaposition between carefree hooks and perspicacious observations extends to the following track, “Bien o Mal,” which details the fear and anxiousness involved upon first meeting a new suitor. While the lyrics are delightfully ambivalent, and the song contains the first non-awkward use of a hip-hop beat on a Julieta Venegas record, the track’s pulse eventually drags and feels like a missed opportunity—it’s her weakest lead single since “Andar Conmigo.”
There are still plenty of other gems on this record, however. “Despedida” and the Carlos Reyes-approved “Debajo de Mi Lengua” are emblematic of Otra Cosa’s unwavering charm; the former a buoyant, melodically rich jaunt just crying for a non-ironic Banda cover, the latter a lovely acoustic, subtle piece of folk-pop which could compete with the best on Limón y Sal. Another highlight has to be the radiant Mexican traditional-indebted “Duda,” the last 40 seconds of which, where cooing harmonies lift Julieta’s cry of “y voy escuchar” amidst dueling guitars, are as tranquil as anything ever recorded on a Julieta Venegas album. And one listen to closer “Eterno” seems to confirm that she’s really been rotating El Guincho and Animal Collective on her stereo; if you could isolate the drums, you’d swear they were from “Kalise” or “Brother Sport.” Of course, it’s still a Julieta Venegas song proper, with a fiery accordion bridge and energized vocal, and to cap it off, a poignant farewell of “Quiero este momento suspendido en el tiempo.”
Not that this is a perfect record. “Revolución” and “Otra Cosa” come off like they’ll sound better in a live setting, but seem a bit staid on record. “Ya Conocerán,” with its electric guitar picking and drowsy melody, seems to evoke memories of Shakira’s work—in English. That isn’t a good thing. Luckily, it’s the only serious misstep on an album that’s seemingly calculated to avoid them.
And overall, that’s the general intuition that you assess from Otra Cosa—the feeling that Julieta Venegas is calm, collected, and at ease with herself and her work. It’s a common argument that great art stems from conflict and turmoil, and there are certainly examples of this in every form. But art doesn’t cease to exist when the tide begins to subside. Pop music, in particular, can’t entirely rely on a single emotive aesthetic. Pop music is an art of a disposability unsurpassed by anything besides cooking. I mean, when you really think about it, the line between an epoch-defining single and throwaway commercial jingle is about as fine as a mink hair. So Otra Cosa is not some mind-bending breakthrough that transcends sound, it’s not the sequel to Bueninvento, it’s not fundamentally different from anything the singer has done before—who said it had to be? It’s simply another solid Julieta Venegas record in every sense of the word, with all the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies that have made her one of the most important figures of Latin music’s past 20 years. To come back to my original questions, perhaps the line between critic and fan is irreconcilable, but maybe that’s healthy. What tests a critic’s mettle better than dissecting something that they’ve keen to analyze? My only hope is that I served you, my loyal, good-looking audience, with honesty and insight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take off my “critic” hat now and go obsess about the accordion fade-out on “Lento” one more time…