New to Saul Williams? Get this album, it’s just a great album to pick up, play, and enjoy.
Saul Williams, while not new to the music scene by any stretch of the imagination, is still a bit of an enigma in the music world. He hasn’t, and still doesn’t, really fit into any hole when it comes to bracketing him in a genre. Yes he raps, but he also has industrial metal influences in his music. He also mixes punk, techno, dance, world music (particularly African tribal) and now, pop. Yes, “Volcanic Sunlight”, Williams’ fourth official album effort, is in large a pop album. But don’t let that move you away from this review, or this artist
The album starts with “Look to the Sun” which is a very interesting beginning as it begins with Saul Williams speaking poetry, similar to his other albums. But… he only really does it one more time in this album (on the track “Innocence”). That fact on its own tells you he’s changed things around here. One of Saul’s main strengths, his poetry, has taken a step back this time. The track itself however is decent, and gets you into the mood for the rest of the album.
One of the outstanding tracks on the album is “Give it Up”, and is a great example of this new direction Saul Williams as gone into. This isn’t industrial techno punk. This is soul music. “Give it Up” is like a modern day James Brown or Marvin Gaye. It’s a proper 1970’s soul/funk effort and it sounds grand.
Going back a few tracks on the album is track three, “Explain My Heart”, and this is definitely one of the strongest tracks on the album. It mixes that fantastic African music influence we spoke of earlier, and mixing it with a decent hip hop beat. Saul’s vocals are emphatic here, his howling of the lyrics “Explain My Heart” in the second verse are just great and the “Ba-ba-bee, ba-ba-baa” chant while that tribal music gets stronger and stronger is a very strong message musically. The music video is worth a look as well, but back onto the album review.
While “Explain My Heart” was revealed first, it’s an argument that “Dance” is the staple feature of the album. I use that term because to my knowledge, neither “Dance” nor “Explain My Heart” are singles. “Dance” is taking a completely different direction to “Explain My Heart”, “Explain My Heart” is very serious and has a completely pure bite to it. “Dance” is very happy, very cheery and makes you want to jig, to dance if you will. The music video for “Dance” takes this approach too. “Dance” sounds fantastic, mixing some electronic guitars and synthesisers to great effect while Saul Williams sings in a luring appealing manner for the ladies, a way that is arguably a first time for him in his career thus far, as the guy is usually very serious about his music. “Dance” changes all that round, the tone, the music and the appeal. It’s definitely more commercial… although I’ll get back to this point in a bit.
My personal favourite track is definitely “Girls on Saturn”, which is just this excellent pop/hip-hop track that is frustratingly catchy, in a style not too dissimilar to Cee Lo Green/Gnarls Barkley it just sounds so great. Some people don’t like labelling Saul Williams as rap as he doesn’t often rap, but rhymes. But in this track he most certainly raps and raps well. It’s just such a fantastic toe-tapper and is arguably the most commercial Saul Williams has gone so far.
So that’s twice I’ve used that word now. Commercial. And that’s the thing. Saul Williams hasn’t been commercial in his approach to his music, until this album. Don’t misunderstand me; some people attach the word ‘commercial’ to an artist that is selling out, that is going against their roots. Saul isn’t doing that in this album, he’s just trying something different. Is he trying to be more commercial or has it happened naturally? I can’t answer that question, all I know is that this is most approachable work yet. Put it this way, Saul Williams barely advertised this album, which is a shame as I reckon it would have done better than his previous work if he did because of this new approach.
The curtain call question simply is, has Saul Williams progressed with this album? After all, there’s an argument to be made that Saul Williams has always taken a step forward with his music career after every major release. My answer to this is no. Saul Williams hasn’t taken a step forward, but more a step sideways. He most certainly hasn’t taken a step backwards. “Volcanic Sunlight” is a new direction for Saul Williams, a more open, approachable direction, and one that new listeners should most certainly start with. If someone was to ask me to recommend them a Saul Williams album to start with, chances are I’d go with this now. It’s just so easy to pick this album up, play it, and just simply enjoy it. It’s a very entertaining album. No it’s not his best work, but it’s just a joy to think of Saul Williams actually enjoy recording music. He probably always has enjoyed recording music but some of his other albums are just daunting at times, they’re so dark, so heavy, you feel sometimes he uses music as escapism, not enjoyment. This is not that at all. This album has so much love, so much cheer, it’s a nice fresh approach. But I just can’t call it a step forward. But it should hopefully open new listeners to his music, while maintaining his current audience. Will fans of old like it? I reckon most of them will, although like me, prefer other albums.
“Volcanic Sunlight” is a fresh direction to Saul Williams, one I encourage if the poet/rapper wants to gain a larger audience.
Rating: ****1/4 stars
Stand out tracks: “Girls on Saturn”, “Dance”, “Give It Up”
Here's the music video for "Dance":