His voice hasn’t dulled in the slightest, and carries these covers into new territories.
Mike Diver 2011-11-16
Twenty-one years ago, in March 1990, a young British singer of Nigerian descent took the dance producer Adamski to number one on the UK singles chart with the still-striking track Killer. A year later, few pop fans had heard anything more from Adamski – but everyone knew about the vocalist, Seal. His eponymous debut LP, produced by Trevor Horn, went straight to number one, bagging a BRIT Award in 1992.
Since his massive commercial breakthrough, Seal hasn’t had to impress with sales – financially comfortable at an early stage of his career, he’s been able to express himself without fear of a critical savaging disrupting his mortgage payments. And he’s certainly taken a few knocks in the years between Killer and now – while 1994’s Seal (II) was great, the following Human Being was a letdown, and his third self-titled set fared little better. Come 2010’s sixth studio album Commitment, journalists had largely written the man off as an original pop force. But in 2008 there came something that did strike a chord with critics and consumers alike: an album of soul covers, simply titled Soul. It featured a pressure-free performer absolutely nailing cuts by the likes of Al Green, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield. That it’s now platinum in the UK, and was a top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 stateside, says much about its immediate appeal.
So Soul 2 is a rather inevitable follow-up, but it’s a welcome addition to the man’s catalogue: while it offers little in the way of surprises, these are 11 fine covers of fine songs by a fine singer. That Seal has a voice that can melt icecaps has never been doubted by his detractors – the problems with his material post-Seal (II) went deeper, to a basic songwriting level. Here, freed of the weight of his own emotions, he soars on a sublime Wishing on a Star (which manages to borrow its smoky backing from Sade’s Smooth Operator), and broods wonderfully on Let’s Stay Together. Later, he manages to take What’s Going On into new territories with a version that is remarkably close to rivalling Marvin Gaye’s original for jaws-on-the-floor first impressions – it’s a brilliant revision that pays tribute to Gaye while adding plenty of new appeal. An effortless cover of the Major Harris hit Love Won’t Let Me Wait shows off his evergreen vocals superbly – his 48 years haven’t dulled a single note.
Naturally there are rather more rudimentary numbers. The Spinners’ I’ll Be Around, Teddy Pendergrass’ Love T.K.O. and Bill Withers’ Lean on Me are tackled with accomplished poise, but the listener will still reach for the originals first. But there’s nothing bad to be said for Soul 2, and with Horn on production everything shines brightly like the first snowflakes of a new winter. Seal the songwriter might never hit the heights of the early 1990s again – but Seal the singer can still hold his own amongst today’s clutch of contemporary soul stars.