I've been suspicious of one-named thrushes since Robyn started scoring points beyond the Top 40 crowd (hell, since we confused appreciation of Aaliyah's overrated albums with spectacular consistency with singles), but a handful of listens to Amerie's Because I Love It confirms that she's got the avidity we demand of a wannabe pop sensation. Make no mistake: this is the year's most consistent pop album, terrific for confirming that lyrical banality does not equal performative banality -- that, indeed, performance scours banality until truth remains. As a stand-alone single, the galumphing "Gotta Work" reminded me too much of Beyonce's grim careerist anthems, long on determination, short on euphoria; on the album, it's a nicely modulated manifesto, preparing us for "Hate 2 To Love U," "Some Like It," and a sequence of tunes whose consistently inventive, glistening overtones bring to relief an undertone even a Battles fan can appreciate: sometimes there's gonna be days like this, so you smile and you endure. I realized there was something special going on when the synths on "Crush" obliquely interpolated a theme from New Order's "Thieves Like Us," one of their most underrated singles, and one that's taken years for me to warm to; I kept looking, hopelessly, for Bernard Sumner's wink to the audience.
That fervor's obvious in most of Amerie's performances. She's the Diana Ross of "You Keep Me Hangin' On," aware of the thin line between acceptance and hysteria, although thankfully Amerie's still not quite big enough a star for the awareness to ossify her energy into the rictus grin of "Muscles" and "It's My Turn." Unlike Beyonce, she can make her ballads signify beyond mere intimations of vulnerability. As Tim Finney remarks, her producers are savvy enough to luxuriate in the tension between her multitracked choruses and crisply enunciated verses, but this theory does little justice to what Amerie accomplishes on an "American Idol" readymade like "All Roads," on whose final forty-five seconds she's actually allowed to sing herself hoarse. It's a stunning moment: this is no Jennifer Hudson sustained aria of indestructibility, it's weakness, unmediated. It's what we expect "American Idol" to be instead of sell.
Re Amerie's "Crush" versus Ciara's "C.R.U.S.H.": were I to extend the New Wave diva analogy I started here, I'd say that Amerie is Alison Moyet to Ciara's Annie Lennox. The marketplace is responding in this manner, unfortunately, as Because I Love It's release date has been pushed back for months and I rarely hear Amerie on the radio. Meanwhile cooler-than-ice-cream Ciara will likely enjoy an audience likely to follow her into continued adult-contemporary remuneration. In the U.S. it's rare enough to see distance triumph over investment that this seems at best a mixed victory.
(crossposted with Back & Forth)