Beats from the Basement—Nelly Furtado

Album: Loose

Artist: Nelly Furtado

Growing up, I struggled immensely with my personal style.  In retrospect, I think it’s a miracle I had the courage to show  up to school every day considering all the colours, designs, and materials I’d throw together in hopes something would stick.

My insecurities did eventually catch up to me, though.  It wasn’t until I flipped through a magazine and saw singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado, a Victoria native of Portuguese descent, proudly donned in bohemian grunge, that I started feeling comfortable with my preferences.  I was happy to finally discover that a cultural icon who dressed similarly to me also embraced some experimentation in her life.

The same can be said about her music.  Furtado’s sound has never quite been able to fit neatly into any particular genre because it’s influenced by a fusion of them, including (sampled) trip hop and world beat.  Her third album, Loose, was her transition into the mainstream, but even then, was quite distinct from other chart-topping records in the mid 2000s.

The fact that eight of the twelve songs were made into hits should tell us something, because it is a rare feat for any artist to achieve.  What makes Loose so listenable as a whole is its progression from one theme to another.

The first half of the album is, for the most part, wild.  The dissonant and eerie synth beats make me think of thrashes and splatters all over the wall.  Any sense of polish was deliberately omitted from the final product, as bloopers and distortions were left in to create conflict between the primal and industrial.  Producer Timbaland is a genius and I expected nothing less of him when he put Loose together.

As for Furtado, she’s flirtatious—maybe deceptively so—and in control.  These songs capture your attention but are never overbearing, because you feel them more than you hear them.  This is especially true when album’s second half kicks in; Furtado struggles to keep her distance as she sheds her almost robotized voice and replaces it with a far more affectionate performance.

By now, the tracks have mostly settled down to reveal hidden depths in the lyrics, with the enigmatic “Say It Right” as their representative.  No one knows what it’s about—not even Furtado herself, despite having written the song—so I’ll offer my interpretation: she wants to open up about her vulnerabilities to someone, but needs to know if they are capable and trustworthy enough to handle it.  Deciding on the meaning is engaging enough, but the unidentifiable, meditative reverberations mixed with exotic percussion and Timbaland’s chants add another layer of mystery to what I believe is Furtado’s crowning achievement.

Even still, if “Say It Right” is a dream, then “In God’s Hands” is transcendental.  The latter references Furtado’s failed relationship with DJ Jasper Gahunia; unlike many popular breakup songs that tend to cast blame on the subject, she acknowledges both their faults instead.  She loves him, yet understands they weren’t meant to be and—this is where I speculate—their feelings ought to live on in others through a miracle.  I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to confront those thoughts at the time, let alone release them to the public, especially since the pair have a child together.  It’s easy for me to say I appreciate when artists expose themselves because it humanizes their art.

It is nonetheless clear that Furtado has a mature outlook on her experiences.  In the self-explanatory “All Good Things (Come to An End),” she is fascinated by the bittersweet, cyclical fate of relationships.  She admits to feigning ignorance in the face of reality; however, she realizes she can’t remain in her painless fantasy forever because nature’s dilemmas always bring her back to accept what she cannot change and work hard on the things she can.  At least, that last part is my impression of it.  Coldplay front man Chris Martin collaborated on the track; his presence is felt through chants and whistles.  Like much of his own music, the overall production here has a cheerful, yet melancholic quality.

Furtado hasn’t been able to truly elevate or diversify her sound beyond her team’s work on Loose.  I can’t say I’m entirely surprised; experiments are unpredictable, after all.  I’m nevertheless confident that, given her open-minded attitude and keen eye for the arts, she’ll wow us again one of these days.