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Bask In Saul Williams’ ‘Volcanic Sunlight’


"Follow me into the wavy, wavy water," Saul Williams beckons on Volcanic Sunlight's opening track "Look to the Sun." And wavy these waters truly are. Erring on the side of dance rock (think TV on the Radio or Bloc Party), the songs are downright catchy showing that Sunlight sets out to be much more accessible than his previous effort, 2008's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. However, this is dance rock filtered through Saul's own lens, after all. Even with an uptempo beat, Saul's serious lyrics and poetic heart bleed through, letting you know that there's a lot more to these songs than the music intimates. Top 40 this is not.

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The album's three leadoffs, "Look to the Sun," "Patience," and "Explain My Heart," set the tone for the rest of the album. They are also possibly three of the best songs that Saul has ever written. Instead of his words being the focal point of his songs and the music simply being a supporting role, now the two have equal billing. This results in a much richer experience, with the songs really sticking with you beyond just the first few listens. 

It's also obvious that Saul was actually having a good time making this record. Where Tardust was in-your-face and angry, this album feels much lighter and freer. For instance, the frantic "Girls on Saturn," in which he enlists a chorus of girls to help out on vocal duties, sounds like a raucous Saturday night on the town. Elsewhere, "Rocket" brings memories of Saul's Amethyst Rock Star days with its boom-bap beat merging with rock guitar. It is also one of the songs that benefits from the extra attention to the music, as it swells from its base to an almost symphonic sound worthy of its soaring lyrics.  

The album's biggest misstep is grouping the slower cuts all at the end of the album. While it does give all of them a bit of reverence, it completely slows the momentum the album had built up at the moment. Still, the quality of a few of these tracks makes up for the suddenly slower pace. One of the best tracks on the album is "Fall Up," an unlikely love song that takes Saul's slightly off-key singing and embraces it with simple instrumentation and heartfelt sentiment. Album closer "New Day" is a bold, triumphant declaration that "It's a new day and I'm gonna live my life in a new way." Giving that the album shows a new direction for Saul musically, it's a fitting end to the set.  

Though Saul has called this his "pop" album, I wouldn't go as far as to paint it with that broad a swipe. Volcanic Sunlight might have a decidedly more danceable sound than its predecessor, but it does nothing to undercut the usual urgency and poignancy of Saul's lyrics. Taking from rock, pop, hip-hop, and spoken word, Saul, always one to push, contort and break boundaries, succeeds yet again in crafting a work that at once meets and defies expectations of what not just Black music -- but music in general -- can be. 

Saul Williams Volcanic Sunlight [Amazon][iTunes]


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