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'Sonic Trickster' Miguel Blends Genres And Melodies On 'Wildheart'


This is FRESH AIR. The singer and songwriter Miguel has just released his third album, called "Wildheart." He was born in LA, is still in his 20s and has cited influences ranging from Prince to Van Morrison. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "Wildheart" is Miguel's most ambitious attempt yet to combine a wide variety of pop styles to express his various moods and ideas.


MIGUEL: (Singing) Set it up. Keep whiling, running, jiving. Baby, drop it like you're stalling, stalling tonight. I want to ride that wire.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Miguel is a sonic trickster, a musical sleight-of-hand artist who leads you to think he's making one kind of song, only to have it turn out to be something else. Take, for example, "A Beautiful Exit," which begins with a snippet from a news report of a crime and a menacing guitar line, but quickly transforms into intense ambivalence. Although the chorus emphasizes the line, we're going to die young, the song is more romantic. That die young sentiment ends up reminding you more of a movie star, like James Dean, than of some urban gangster shootout.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We begin with breaking news here at 5 o'clock...

MIGUEL: (Singing) Don't ever sell yourself short. Don't accept it. Accept the new. Don't linger on the past. Believe yourself. Trust your intuition. You're here for a reason, you know? Speeding through all of these red lights, fast life. Dreaming a beautiful exit. We're going to die young. Speeding through all of these red lights.

TUCKER: Miguel sings a number of songs describing Hollywood and Los Angeles, songs about sunny dreams that can go dark. "The Valley" is a sometimes X-rated composition that, as its title suggests, mentions the porn industry centered in the San Fernando Valley. On the song "Leaves," he refers to sweet California, sour California. And Miguel takes care to present his hometown of Los Angeles as something more than just the city of dreams or the bleak landscape of a thousand sunshine-noir thrillers. You can hear Miguel address the complexity and allure of LA in a song such as "Hollywood Dreams," with its rock guitar riff and a sly lyric paraphrase of David Bowie's song, "Heroes."


MIGUEL: (Singing) Lost angel with an urgent subtle, jaded eyes and this empty fixation. Sweet Hollywood sign, you're my salvation. Cokey scenes full of pipe dreams, palm trees and a numb sensation, chasing. Vivid schemes put my name on a marquee. Oh, well. I'm still waiting for my big break, for fame's sake. And we could be better than heroes, baby, all right. We could fly up in spaceships, baby, all night. Said could you help me find a magic man? He can make it all happen. All right.

TUCKER: Miguel has coined a term for his mixture of rock, pop, hip-hop, reggae and funk. He calls it eclectric. He uses this mixture to great effect in a song such as "Coffee," which has proven to be this album's early crowd-pleaser. It is, in part, a description of the transition from going to sleep at night to waking up in the morning with someone you're falling in love with. His soft, multi-tracked vocals have an initially sleepy quality that snaps into alert little descriptions of small talk and the intimacies two people share.


MIGUEL: (Singing) I wish I could paint our love, these moments, in vibrant hues. Wordplay turns into gunplay. Gunplay turns into pillow talk. Pillow talk turns into sweet dreams. Sweet dreams turn into coffee in the morning. We talk street art and...

TUCKER: Miguel's style can sound, at different times, soothing, seductive, drugged-out, sly, blunt and subtle. He deploys a falsetto croon on a sexy song called "Flesh," but switches over to a direct conversational style on the marvelously straightforward, "Face The Sun," in which he could not make his declaration to a lover more clear. I belong to you, he says emphatically.


MIGUEL: (Singing) I ain't a saint. I think you know. But I see a way I'm going to go. There's no debate that I belong to you, yeah. Baby, we're the same. You know my flaws. So if I ever stray, you know the cause. But no matter what I do, I know, I know I belong to you. I belong with you. Yeah, baby. Yeah, I got a temper...

TUCKER: Not for nothing does Miguel frequently fill his lyrics with references to painting and water. He's making brushstrokes with his melodies, mixing colors and tones. The kind of rhythm-and-blues he makes throughout this album, "Wildheart," is excitingly diverse and vivid.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large at Yahoo TV. He reviewed Miguel's new album, "Wildheart." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Billy Hope) All I need is six weeks. I need six weeks. I'll give you my everything.

GROSS: That's Jake Gyllenhaal, in the new film "Southpaw," as a boxer who needs to train for a comeback. I'll talk with Gyllenhaal about his movies and about growing up in a movie family. His father is a director, his mother a screenwriter, his sister, Maggie, is an actress. Jake Gyllenhaal got his first movie role when he was 10. So join us tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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