When I think of Saul Williams, the phrases ‘dance party’ and ‘sing-a-long’ seem like the antithesis of what the poet represents. Williams is best known, of course, for his poetry, and as a fearless thinker, constantly exploring the outer reaches of his own consciousness. So, to the seasoned fan of his art, Volcanic Sunlight, his latest offering, may seem like quite a departure. And it is. This is perhaps the most danceable ‘smart’ record ever. Or, maybe this is the smartest dance record ever…? Or maybe this is a logical step for an artist so intent on challenging himself and his listeners: put out a collection of (essentially) rock songs. Whatever it is, it works… beautifully.
Volcanic Sunlight opens as one might expect: with a poem, sans music. After this brief but captivating introduction, however, these moments are few and far between. The record quickly heats up with a slinky drums-and-percussion rhythm and Williams calmly singing, “And on the morning I was born, I faced the sun and shouted.” It is not until the refrain that Williams lets loose, and listeners are offered a glimpse of the album’s ‘sound.’ Williams howls, “Follow me into the wavy, wavy water,” a fitting request this early on in his sonic transformation.
It only gets more hype from there. The second cut, “Patience,” which made its first appearance here on OKP last week, has Williams wailing over a frantic drum beat and warped synths, “Patience … over… anxiety.” This is one of many reminders that, although this album is ‘fun,’ it is so so so much more. “Explain My Heart” conjures up early 90’s Fishbone when they were making forays into the world of hard rock. In a rare spoken segment, Williams asserts “There is no time like the present / No better place to be.” For a moment, this statement gets me longing for the poet Saul Williams to stay for a while. As is the case with many of my favorite lyricists, Williams’ poetry has the ability to make me feel like I am experiencing his work in the present, for the first time, every time I listen to it.
The singer Saul Williams takes a different approach, tossing out hooks like “Girls! Have fun!” on “Girls on Saturn,” an appropriately interplanetary-sounding dance romp. Strangely enough, after weighing in on this stylistic departure so heavily, the hook has been stuck in my head all week. “Dance” is another example of this phenomenon, showcasing Williams’ best Mick Jagger swagger. The ease with which Williams approaches his singing duties makes it not just effective, but highly convincing. Indeed, he sounds like could have made his whole career on this style.
Ultimately, Volcanic Sunlight adds more pieces to the puzzle that is Saul Williams. The irony lies in the fact that this album is, in many ways, much simpler than many of his previous offerings, but may leave listeners more confounded than ever.