Yuppies need good music, too. For those in need of artful, adult intelligence with a beat, Seal (Sealhenry Samuel) is a better bet than an open lunch slot at the racquetball court. Actually, the stylish London-born singer/songwriter is more substantial than his fast-track success might imply, but the remoteness of his emotionalism makes him seem shuttered even when he’s disgorging his heart. Intimacy doesn’t usually sound this glossy and impersonal.
Produced by Trevor Horn in tribute to Bryan Ferry’s elegant mid-Atlantic aspirations, Seal calmly wraps his husky voice around slow-moving melodies in lush, soulful dance grooves appealing in conception and magnificent in execution. The first of Seal’s two untitled albums (no Peter Gabriel connection should be read into that) reveals an unsettled sense of historical place, as if the otherwise modern auteur had spent the ’80s listening to old Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, Richie Havens and Joni Mitchell records. As Horn modulates the tone from house-hunting warm (“The Beginning”) to atmospherically cool (“Crazy”), pop rich (“Wild”) to folky spare (“Deep Water,” “Whirlpool”) to rock hard (“Killer”), Seal offers vague, reflective commentary on love, the environment, society and personal issues, leaving a strong sonic impression without articulating many literal ideas. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from “Miracles will happen…But we’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” it’ll need some elaboration.
The second Seal (will there someday be a seventh Seal?), again produced by Horn, is a somber but lightly rendered affair that tests the singer’s optimism with tear-filled lessons of pain and loss. Richer with handsome melodies, devoted to vocals and arranged more delicately than the debut, Seal refines the music to a rarefied realm in which sounds glisten and syllables are placed as carefully as the threads in a tapestry. “Kiss From a Rose” is the number that brought Seal to the top of the charts after it was included on the Batman Forever soundtrack in August ’95, but it’s “Prayer for the Dying” — seemingly an AIDS-related farewell to a friend — that serves as the album’s centerpiece. That eloquent declaration of hope in the face of despair is followed by such relevancies as the supportive “Don’t Cry,” the questioning “People Asking Why” and the guardedly grateful “I’m Alive.” But for all the passion sequestered in Seal’s creations, Seal is a disturbingly distant and conflicted record in both word and feel. His need to remain private in public strips the songs of their impact, and his filigreed delivery doesn’t match the life and death issues he’s singing about. “Life is confusing and I don’t know why,” Seal sings in “People Asking Why.” For all its solid achievement, the ambitions of Seal might have been a compellingly realized masterpiece if he had given that one some more thought.