Review: Original High Notes
So here we are, six years after Adam Lambert rampaged into our consciousness. His third album is out and streaming in infinite loops on fans’ iPods, Spotify, Pandora, Shazam and CD players—sometimes all at the same time. Is this the breakout album we’ve been waiting for? Will we at long last see him enjoy the success he deserves?
Before this question can be answered, we need to ask ourselves, what is success? For many fans, it’s Top 10 hits, Grammy awards, critical validation, fame and fortune. Back when he was competing on American Idol, these may have been Adam’s goals as well. But the goal posts have shifted, as Adam has learned and now sings about on this album. Some of these prizes are elusive and subject to whims and fashions beyond his control. Others, once achieved, turn out not to hold the keys to happiness.
I have been waiting for Adam to evolve towards a deeper understanding of what’s worth living for, what it means to be an artist, and what kind of artist he is meant to be. Adam is first and foremost a singer. In the pop world, he is without peer. But a singer ultimately rises and falls on the strength of the material. Each element–words, melody, instrumentation, production and vocal delivery—is essential. A weakness in any part will undermine the song. If every component is strong and aligns with the rest, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and you achieve a song for the ages.
To be sure, it’s rare for any song—and certainly most of what we hear on the radio–to meet these criteria. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Adam to such a lofty standard, but he brings out the Tiger Mom in me. It’s because I believe he wants it too.
One of my worries (because that’s what Glamberts do, worry!) is that Adam would settle for becoming the Andrea Bocelli of pop…a singer who coasts along on natural gifts, whose ability to hold a high note longer than seems humanly possible is sufficient to bring on the standing ovations and sustain a career. So much adulation can sidetrack you from the path to evolving into a true artist.
What Adam needs is not songs to serve as vehicles for his voice, but songs worthy of being served by his voice. On American Idol, he could dive into a trove of proven classics, and his choices were usually spot on. Post-Idol, he faced the daunting challenge of manufacturing new hits. Imagine if Yo-yo Ma, upon graduating from Harvard, was handed a pen and told that henceforth his career success would depend performing music he composed himself.
That’s essentially what the American Idol machine demands. And it’s what Adam wants, for better or worse. Why? Perhaps because that’s the most lucrative outcome; the royalties from a major hit can secure your financial future. Perhaps it’s for the status; the singer-songwriter stands at the pinnacle of our popular music hierarchy. Sorry if I sound a touch cynical, but Adam is a smart and strategic, and I have no doubt that he’s thought these things through.
“For Your Entertainment” was primarily what its title promised. What depth it had came from the hodge podge of talented creators who contributed songs, and what Adam was able to imbue in them. On “Trespassing,” Adam had plenty to say about his life as a gay club kid, but despite some fine musical packaging, that message resonated mainly with his fans.
Bless him for wanting to please us, but Adam, if you are an artist, and not simply an entertainer, giving your fans what they demand is not your job.
One other thing that gives me pause: Adam often speaks of wanting to write the kind of music he enjoys listening to. That is getting things backwards, it seems to me. If you are a songwriter, you are likely to appreciate a wide variety of music—classical, rock, indie, jazz, pop, world music, techno—but most would not be the right fit for what you want to say. You would invent the musical language that expresses your ideas and emotions in a way that is authentic to yourself. If you achieve this, it will be the best music you’ve every heard. And if that song is universal enough to touch millions who have no idea who you are, then we’re getting somewhere.
In listening to the tracks of “The Original High,” I’m not so analytical! Figuring out whether a song is fabulous or “meh” is more of an emotional brain function: do I hit “replay” or do I skip forward after one or two hearings?
DISCLAIMER: These are simply my personal reactions, much of it subconscious and totally subjective. I expect others to have completely different responses. There are no right or wrong ones. I’m eager to hear about your personal reactions to the songs!
On Replay = Fabulous
Ghost Town. Less is more right out of the starting gate. The simple guitar melody that opens the song captured my ear, and when Adam’s voice echoed the melody, I was hooked. The lyrics are strong. Personal favorite: “Died last night in my dreams/All the machines had been disconnected”—rhythm, rhyme and imagery meld perfectly. The reference to “machines” jolts us into the present. (On the other hand, “Love is a satire” paired with “City of vampires” is a bit of a misfire.) The instrumentation is spot on, a well-crafted layering of ghostly clangs, ear-wormy whistling and spellbinding dance beats. “Ghost Town” catches the wave started by Avicii of retro/roots-meets-EDM and should appeal to Adam’s fellow millennials. A smart choice for the first single.
(It would have been extra cool if Adam were as good a whistler as he is a singer. For some virtuosic whistling and remarkable vocals, check out singer-songwriter LP in her hit single “Into the Wild.”)
The Original High. This song has everything: an urgent dance beat, finger snaps, confident lyrics with strong narrative flow and images, yet vague enough to let our minds fill in a multitude of meanings. Adam’s voice is nicely exposed and takes us on a journey of yearning, heartbreak, nostalgia and ecstasy. I’ve always been partial to his falsetto and he gives us massive amounts of it here. He can be really proud of this one. Kudos to the producers for putting this right after “Ghost Town,” which provides the perfect set up. The two songs are in the same key (as are many of the songs), which unifies the album. I appreciate how the album was constructed; there is a narrative arc that carries the listener from song to song.
There I Said It. This is the ballad I’ve been waiting for. Adam sings with such intimacy and power, unfurling his exquisite falsetto to deliver legato lines of excruciating poignancy. As the melody spirals upward, Adam’s voice soars with a purity and assurance that sends chills up my spine.
I tell you something,
It’s a double-edged sword your given,
And I can see the truth we’re living
When we hide behind a wall of fear;
And you don’t see it–
It’s a twisted dream you believe in,
And what’s the use of pretending,
Let’s make the smoke and mirrors disappear…
The song earns the bombast of its anthemic chorus. It works at many levels of meaning: a relationship song, a protest, a coming out song. I hope it gets a wide hearing because it can and should be embraced by all kinds of listeners. I confess I felt a little resistant to “grown-ass man” the first time I heard this, but Adam sings with such conviction that I’m won over. This one’s a keeper.
The Light. I am such a sucker for that galloping dance beat. But this song also has great lyrics, all metaphors playing with elemental images that fuel the imagination. The bitter heart of the words contrasts deliciously with the irresistible beat. It’s dark and sexy and this song needs to rule the clubs this summer. Adam, you are the Light.
After Hours (bonus track) – Maybe because I’m a fan of 90s alt rock bands like Garbage, this song hooked me right off the bat. Shame is also immensely appealing in a retro way. Both songs deliver fabulous dance grooves. The melodies fit Adam’s voice, but perhaps not the arc of the album, which may be why they weren’t included in the album, but these are terrific gems, bonuses in the best sense of the word.
I pondered whether to go into some of the songs that I’m less entranced by. Maybe I should just stick to the positive. But given my dislike of much that streams out on pop radio, I figure any song I dislike is probably destined for pop greatness! So here goes:
Another Lonely Night. I do like this song a lot, just not whole heartedly. I appreciate Adam’s experimentation with vocal styling, but it feels derivative and maybe just isn’t my cup of tea. And I can’t stop hearing the “moo.” I feel so bad about this!
Rumors. I can easily imagine “Rumors” taking over the airwaves this summer. Tove Lo is talented, the song has a compelling hook and the pointed lyrics deliver a genuine message for this age of oversharing and overexposure. What I hate about this song is that it achieves something I wouldn’t have thought possible: It has rendered Adam’s voice ordinary. Even knowing it’s him, I can scarcely recognize it until the end, when he gets to let loose some good wails.
Underground. This starts off promisingly with a plaintive keyboard and naked vocals, but then it slides into a contemporary R&B style that I have always found unbearably boring. The popularity of this genre is a mystery to me; undoubtedly my reaction means this song will become a hit too. (And “Velcro” I’m afraid knocks this completely off the rails for me.)
Evil in the Night. I know Adam loves this song and given that it was one of the four songs pre-released before the album, it may be earmarked for a future single. The pop critics seems to favor it. What do I know? I find the melody and beats ponderous and the transitions clunky. The lyrics are trying way, way too hard. The fact that I have such a visceral dislike of this song probably guarantees that it will be a hit!
Lucy. It truly pains me to write this. Much as I love Brian May’s guitar godliness on this song, I’m just not feeling this one. It seems as though at this point in the album, the producers decided they needed to hit a mood nadir with a song about a strung-out, lost kid. Hence Lucy, but this girl doesn’t have flesh on her bones or electricity in her nerves. She’s an abstraction. The lyrics pile one cliché on top of another and don’t evoke a real girl or make you feel anything for her. I’m devastated because I am totally in love with the Brian+Adam bromance.
Overall, I love “The Original High,” if not unreservedly. It is loaded with superior songs, and his more restrained vocals and stripped down style hopefully will cause more listeners to appreciate the diamond that has been hiding beneath the glitter. Seems to be working. In his New York Times review, Jon Caramanica wrote: “Maybe, to succeed, Mr. Lambert had to find a way to submit to something greater…there are almost no extravagances. After years of spectacle, Mr. Lambert may have been saved by modesty.”
Welcome to the party Jon, but in truth, I’m ambivalent. I would mourn if Adam were to completely abandon his over-the-topness. I miss the androgyny, the glam persona. He was so, so good at embodying the spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe it was just an act, but the reverberations he unleashed were real and life-changing for many fans.
While I am truly living in the moment of enjoying this Original High, my mind does wander ahead to jot down a wish list for the next one. (We Glamberts are a hard lot to satisfy!! We always want more.)
Wish #1. I would love to see Adam emerge from his cocoon of the Hollywood pop star world. There are only so many meaningful songs one can write about that life. I sometimes wonder whether sharing the family dining table with such no holds barred debaters as Eber and Neil cowed Adam into withdrawing from engaging with ideas and issues. People used to joke that every time Sting read a book, he’d write a song. Maybe Adam could read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and pen some songs protesting income inequality. Just kidding. Sort of.
Wish #2. That Adam form a real band comprised not of studio musicians but serious artistic collaborators with whom he can create music that would catch fire when performed live. He is such a compelling live vocalist and born improviser, and it makes me crazy to hear him straitjacketed by a backing track. The album makes for great listening, but most of the songs, forged as they were inside a studio, don’t allow for dynamic and elastic performances that make live concerts so unforgettable. (Maybe hyperinstrument technology is the answer! Hmmm.)
As I write, I’m indulging in my snack addiction–dark Mayan chocolate laced with hot chili–and it occurs to me that an original high is not necessarily the best. The initial taste can be painful or even unpleasant, but every time you repeat it, the endorphin rush grows. You learn to relish the fire annealed to the bittersweet subtle grit of the chocolate. And one day you find that you don’t want to live without it.
My ultimate wish for Adam is that he will discover things in life that grow deeper and richer the more you experience them. It’s about moving beyond the easy pleasures of youth. When you have tasted bitterness and felt the fire, your life will become sweeter than you ever thought possible.
Then you’ll be a grown-ass man.