If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands — or else Pharrell Williams will come over and burn you with the feral pep of Happy, a pop hit surging with enough sunshine to cause melanoma.
It’s the first single from Girl, a chipper new album that enjoyed an extraordinary promotional boost at Sunday’s Academy Awards, where Happy had earned a Best Original Song nomination for anchoring the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack.
Hasn’t Pharrell spent enough time in our heads in the past year? Last summer, we couldn’t escape the man cooing on Daft Punk’s neo-disco triumph Get Lucky, or Robin Thicke’s Marvin Gaye seance, Blurred Lines. Now, Pharrell’s back with his first solo album since 2006’s pretty-much-forgotten In My Mind, and his voice has never been more inescapable.
Here, his taut production style feels airless and claustrophobic, and his duets — specifically, with Justin Timberlake on the Jackson 5-ish Brand New and with Alicia Keys over the rigid reggae of Know Who You Are — create only the tiniest sparks.
On his own, things get even more meh. Hunter rebuilds Diana Ross’s Upside Down with the spongy Neptunes synth-timbres of a decade ago, while Pharrell filters weak singing through lazy rhymes. “ Duck Dynasty is cool and all,” he raps, “but they got nothing on a female’s call.” (He’s emulating Prince’s “You don’t have to watch Dynasty” line on Kiss, but he ends up sounding like Debbie Harry on Rapture.)
Lost Queen is another meandering song about meandering flirtation, filled with crisp percussion and friendly vocal melodies worthy of a cartoon soundtrack. And while the lyrics are PG-13, there’s enough X-rated blah-blah-blah elsewhere to make it clear that Girl isn’t a children’s album by any stretch.
Not that Pharrell is trying to be the new Wiggles — but who is he trying to be? He has asserted himself as a technician focused on his listeners’ pleasure, but we still don’t know him. His lyrics have never been more vapid and he’s never been more beloved. So what’s under the hat? A Fort Knox of personality and pathos? Or just a bunch of air?
Girl provides an unsatisfying answer: Don’t worry, be happy. The hat stays on.