Quiz for Seal fans: hum a few of his tunes -- right now.
Having a little trouble beyond one or two songs? Don't be too hard on yourself. Most likely, Seal himself wouldn't have it any other way. On "Human Being," as on his first two albums, he and producer Trevor Horn continue their quest to become masters of the R&B-soundscape domain. The songs don't rely on solidly welded melodies or razor-sharp lyrical detail as much as on turbulent orchestration, nudged-along beats, and a vague, undefined sense of inner turmoil.
When all those elements come together, as they do throughout "Human Being" (and on earlier hits like "Kiss From a Rose" and "Crazy"), the results are chilly pop elegance -- the music equivalent of a sleek hardcover collection of art photos. In the sweeping "Just Like You Said," Seal acknowledges the end of an affair, heavenly strings ascending around him with each verse. "State of Grace" builds from a modest drum-and-bass beat to a symphonic swell, while the slow-dance sway of "Still Love Remains" is simultaneously romantic and despairing. With their reverb-drenched, sigh-imbued layers of keyboards, guitars, and strings, capped with Seal's silky, ruminative delivery, these songs are walls of sound done up with particularly luxurious wallpaper. Phil Spector would be proud.
Like Seal's previous work, "Human Being" can also be irritatingly elusive. In both lyrics and melodies, some tracks are too nebulous for their own good. Yet Seal continues to make cloudiness work to his advantage. Even if his troubles remain unclear ("Latest Craze," with its cocktail-beat electronica, hints at some sort of lifestyle excess), at least he doesn't offer up simplistic New Age bromides for his troubles. He's groping for answers to nagging, ill-defined questions, and he's found astral-plane music to match. "This is the sound of a feeling that's caught in my head," he sings in "State of Grace." Few vaguer--or truer--words have been sung by a pop star this decade.