Of all the artists I listen to regularly, Shakira is perhaps the biggest test of my recent conclusion that it’s music — not lyrics — that means the most to me.
For one thing, Shakira’s best work has been recorded entirely in Spanish, so I have very little idea what she’s saying at all (and I don’t care). And second, her English-language songs alternate between generic love proclamations/condemnations and some of the most oddball, head-scratching lyrics you’re likely to find in a contemporary pop song. This is a woman who once titled a song ‘Poem to a Horse.’
Consider “I’m starting to feel a little abused, like a coffee machine in an office” from ‘She Wolf,’ the title song of her newest album. OK. I applaud her for avoiding clichés, at least… I’ve certainly never heard that one before. In the shuffling ‘Gypsy,’ she declares “‘Cause I’m a gypsy, but are you coming with me? I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me.” In ‘Mon Amour,’ she wishes an ex and his new lover ill will on a trip to France, hoping the “toilet doesn’t flush and the locals treat you mean.” OK, that one’s actually pretty good.
So no, I don’t listen to Shakira for her lyrics. However, I can say without reservation that She Wolf is the best-sounding album I’ve heard all year. Shakira is a notorious perfectionist who obsessed over every detail of this record, blowing through a few release deadlines in the process, and her dedication has paid off in spades.
As on all of her albums, she has blended a host of styles here… She Wolf features dance pop fused with the influences of her Arabic and Colombian background as well as a smattering of rockabilly and Phil Spector. Her choruses are big and fun, her bridges unexpected. She’s a fiercely talented songwriter and producer (who happens to compare herself to a coffee machine).
My chief complaint about She Wolf is its brevity. Though the CD boasts 16 tracks, two of those are live versions barely indistinguishable from their studio counterparts, three are Spanish-language versions of earlier songs, one is a remix and one is a genuine bonus track (featuring Lil Wayne). The album proper includes only nine songs and runs a little over a half hour.
But that’s a complaint only because I want more of such a good thing… those 30 minutes are jam-packed with some of the catchiest, most inventive songs I’ve heard in a long time. Standouts include ‘Men in this Town,’ in which Shakira suggests it’s impossible to find good men in L.A. and laments that Matt Damon is already taken; ‘Spy,’ a duet with Wyclef Jean that leaves their international hit ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ in the dust; and ‘Long Time,’ a super sexy dance jam with a delicious little horn part at the end that typifies the sort of unexpected musical touches she’s so good at.
She Wolf is the first English-language release that rises to the level of Shakira’s Spanish-language work. I suppose she’s comfortable enough with the language now that she can just do what she does, rather than trying the equivalent of throwing a ball with the wrong hand. I don’t know if this album will bring her closer to the global dominance she desires, but it should. In a landscape of cookie-cutout pop acts, Shakira is a true original.