A year ago, Robin Thicke was on top of the world.
The good times didn’t last.
On the follow-up to his Grammy-nominated breakout Blurred Lines, Thicke sounds broken, not boastful.
How the 37-year-old singer-songwriter arrived at Paula, his seventh studio album, necessitates a brief tour into TMZ territory.
In February, Thicke and his wife, actress Paula Patton, separated after nine years of marriage, allegedly because of Thicke’s infidelity (the exact reason for the estrangement remains unclear). Thicke spent the next months publicly proclaiming his love for Patton, on stage and for the paparazzi, saying simply, in the words of Paula’s first single, he only wanted to Get Her Back.
There are cynics suggesting the split is purely about publicity, a crass stunt to “enrich” what is otherwise, creatively, a very mixed bag.
While such a scenario is certainly possible, there are elements on Paula so painful to hear it seems almost impossible that someone would portray himself in such a light merely to remain part of the pop-culture conversation.
Gone is Blurred Lines’ libidinous swagger, and its morally murky but engaging songs.
Thicke opens the too-long Paula with the somber, samba-tinged You’re My Fantasy, and immediately it’s evident that any reconciliation will be happening on his terms. “Touch me/You’re my fantasy,” Thicke croons repeatedly, ending the song with a sustained plea: “Pretty, pretty please/Come home to me.”
In other words, satisfy me now, but hey, won’t you think about moving back in first?
That tension between regret and release makes it tough to feel too much empathy for Thicke — much of the 52-minute record is pathetic rather than powerful.
Although Paula is ostensibly an album-length ode to the one who got away, the few deviations from naked emotional honesty feel all the more jarring because of context: A man allegedly unfaithful to his wife probably shouldn’t sing a song titled Whatever I Want with the chanted refrain “I can do whatever I want.”
Yet there are moments of real power, a glimpse of what might have been if Thicke weren’t having to keep an eye on his career even as he strives to repair his marriage.
Black Tar Cloud, a thinly veiled allusion to heroin, finds Thicke in raw confessional mode: “Yelling and screaming and smacking me/How could you do this you spoiled little rich kid?” Thicke intones in a husky sing-speak, a chilling line in a song full of them. This harrowing portrait of domestic strife — an overdose on pills prompts a call to 911, while Thicke dodges vicious blows from his “favorite golf club” — is a far cry from the fizzy flirtations of Blurred Lines and Give It 2 U. It’s riveting, and one of the most uncomfortable moments in mainstream music so far this year.
Thicke often seems like a different artist entirely on Paula.
A pop star whose moment in the spotlight curdled into something ugly, Thicke mines the unflattering flip side of immense popularity, although his heart often doesn’t seem to be in it. A lot of Paula — produced by Thicke — feels perfunctory, despite the subject matter. (Filler like the insipid Tippy Toes and Living in New York City is especially conspicuous here.)
Coming off a record full of vivid tracks, Paula feels like a throwback to ’70s soul, a likely intentional choice but one blunting the emotional impact of such explosive material. Consider Something Bad, a too-cute track pitched as a lark, but laced with self-loathing: “Look at me/I’m showing off again/Vanity is my only friend,” Thicke growls. It’s a self-aware sentiment, to be sure, but one rendered in a way that ultimately defangs it.
Indeed, the mind reels when considering what a fearless iconoclast like Kanye West would have done with these songs.
But for all of its flaws, Paula exerts a peculiar pull (there must be a metaphor for Thicke and Patton’s marriage in there somewhere).
Leaving aside the car-crash spectacle of it all, it’s remarkable that Thicke would forsake his bright, shining moment for a shot at reconciliation.
Provided the Thicke-Patton marital strife is genuine, there’s something noble and decidedly old-fashioned about a singer pouring his heart out on record. In an era of ironic detachment and macho posturing, showing such vulnerability — undercut as it is by a few tone-deaf detours into standard-issue R&B braggadocio — on such a closely watched stage is admirable.
Of course, should Robin Thicke’s marriage dissolve entirely, such plaudits will likely come as very cold comfort.