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POP BEAT

Back in the swim

After a five-year dry spell, singer Seal rewards patient fans with a new album.

October 04, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Seal's far too much of a gentleman to keep people waiting -- certainly without benefit of explanation.

But in this case, the singer-songwriter has ventured a little further than your garden variety "beg pardon." Tucked neatly within the liner notes of his new album, "Seal IV," is his courtly thank you: "To everyone who has waited patiently for me to get it together. I hope you enjoy it. Once again, it's the best I have at this time."

No one has been more acutely aware of the wait (five years) and the pressure of it ("a bitter pill") than Seal himself.

But isn't taking your time a pop star prerogative?

Not in Seal's case. For him, this long pause was neither an exercise in suspense building nor a chance to cultivate or deepen a mystery-man image.

"I was stuck," he says simply, as prosaic as it sounds.

Seal had been present in a big way, winning best song, best record and best male pop vocal Grammys in 1995 for "Kiss From a Rose." After 1998's "Human Being" he had allowed for his usual lying-fallow period. But what he didn't count on was 2 1/2 years of work that ultimately went into the round file.

"All of it," he says with a dismissive shake of the head and an upturned nose as he settles beneath the shade of a poolside umbrella at the Sunset Marquis Hotel on a recent Indian summer afternoon. "Every bit of it."

Something just wasn't clicking for the Londoner, who moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago.

"There has been a misconception," he explains, posed in a slim navy pinstripe suit and sipping a glass of Pellegrino with a splash of Rose's lime juice. "Everyone is quick to take a crack at L.A. and say that it is vacuous. But L.A. has a wealth of things that one can be inspired by. There was a wealth of stuff to write about. But it was just that I had lost my objectivity. L.A. was still a muse. But it was malfunctioning."

The only solution he could come up with was to go back to the source: the streets he grew up on. After an 18-month reimmersion, Seal returned with a new head and a new outlook -- and notes from his journey. The result: "Seal IV."

And with the album's very first notes -- his sandpaper voice over the velvet thicket of horns -- it's as if he never left.

This extended pause out of the public's eye and consciousness is a timeout generally unheard of in an industry where you're only as good as your last offering's chart placement, and as bankable as your last well-orchestrated photo op.

But in his dozen-year career, Seal has made it perfectly clear he'd rather take his chances.

"Seal IV," which has sold nearly 200,000 copies since its Sept. 9 release, pairs him again with his post-soul-(music)-mate, producer Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, ABC, Pet Shop Boys), and shows off his unmistakable unfiltered huff of a voice in a brightly hued, less cluttered setting.

The record reaffirms Seal's unique place as a mature male pop balladeer with that all-important edge: "Seal brings an effortless masculinity -- strong without being a macho caricature; sensitive without being a wuss -- that's been sorely missing from the pop charts," Rolling Stone magazine said in its review. And it doesn't get better than Blender's four-star assessment: "Seal remains one of the best half-dozen male singers drawing breath."

Seal's elaborately embroidered songs elude the usual pop-chart categorization. Part art rock, part funk, part soul, part dance, it's all given that unmistakable Trevor Horn burnish. Seal, of Nigerian and Brazilian ancestry, has always been heavy on texture and mood, so back too are the expansive instrumental colors and layers that lend his songs an almost tactile feel.

This time around, instead of getting "a little crazy," Seal emphasizes declarations of love ("Get It Together," "Love's Divine") or a series of notes-of-a-survivor affirmations ("Waiting for You," "Heavenly ... [Good Feeling])." Part of it is Seal's open heart, the door to his muse pried open once more.

But getting to it meant pushing away from what had become familiar. Back in London, he retraced his steps, stepped back deep into his past.

"I walked and spent time in Paddington and Kilburn, submersing myself in things I used to do," he says. Not just the obvious sights along the way, but "the voices of the Indian news agents, the sounds, the smells. It reminded me of when I was a kid and I'd sit on top of the 36 bus with my headphones on and ride it end to end."

It triggered things. Rekindled his creative spirit. His head and heart full of souvenirs, reminders, he set to work following the ghost of an old rhythm.

Teaming with musicians in Bristol, he began to sort it out. "I picked up the bass and, suddenly, out came 'Heavenly.' It was immediately evident -- 'Ahhhh, this sounds like quintessential Seal.' "

The trip was a device, he explains. "As soon as 'Love's Divine' was written, I had tears well up in my eye. That's how I knew I had hit on something."

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