Happy 10th Anniversary to Seal’s fifth studio album System, originally released November 12, 2007.
In March 1990, “Killer” was the second single released from the enterprising British DJ Adamski’s sophomore set, Doctor Adamski’s Musical Pharmacy. An exciting hybrid of rock drama and house, “Killer” jumped cultural lines, out of the clubs and onto pop radio. In other words, it was a smash and reset the career trajectories of both Adamski and the man who had provided additional lyrical and vocal fuel to “Killer,” fellow Brit Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel, better known as Seal.
A year later, Seal joined the Warner Brothers roster and his eponymous inaugural album Seal (1991) introduced the singer-songwriter to the world. Assuredly eclectic in its mix of adult contemporary pop-soul, dance music was still a prominent strand in Seal’s musical make-up. But, as the vocalist moved across his second (1994’s Seal II), third (1998’s Human Being) and fourth (2003’s Seal IV) albums, his brand of mid-to-downtempo material came to dominate his sound. Granted, there was always a discernible groove present on these post-Seal projects, but nothing approaching the fever ensconced in his debut.
On June 5, 2007, Seal remarked on his (then) upcoming fifth studio LP System via his official website’s journal, the “Seal Report”: “It can best be described as me “returning to my roots” as it were. Some who’ve heard it say that it’s a dance album. I can understand why people say that, I see it more as an album of good songs that people will dance to…hopefully.” System was Seal’s homecoming to the genre after a considerable absence and also marked the temporary separation from his friend and producer, Trevor Horn. Horn and Seal would reunite though, on portions of Soul 2 (2011) and the entirety of 7 (2015).
System’s backdrops were constructed by Stuart Price, an ascendant producer, remixer and music director. Price had just completed work on Madonna’s sterling veteran affair Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and its subsequent tour in 2006. Outside of Price’s “behind the boards” presence and an occasional co-write, Seal kept the System cast spartan. Only three other collaborators—Bill Bottrell, Eric Schermerhorn and Christopher Bruce— joined him in the lyrical processes for the album, which Seal primarily shouldered.
At the time, System was a bit of a risk as it related to its reception. With an established act, perception is typically stronger than reality; in this case, how Seal’s output had come to be seen by fans and critics. And while he had not completely abandoned uptempo moods in his work, by and large, Seal had developed a reputation as a balladeer. To plunge head first into the ever-choppy currents of dance music presented challenges for all involved.
Now, while Price did not have the same sweeping attention to detail that Horn did, he knew how to accessorize his driving electronic rhythms and beats that abound on System overall. System opens with “If It’s In My Mind, It’s On My Face,” a storming piece of electro-funk that plays well to Seal’s inspired vocalizing. Elsewhere, loping guitar holds court with twinkling synth effects on “Just Like Before” and a noticeable Latin influence is recognizable in “Loaded” and “Dumb.” There are two versions of “Amazing,” one reworked by Price under an alias nicked from Bowie, “The Thin White Duke Edit.” This version of “Amazing” packs a punch, making its selection as a single wise. This form of the song is placed as the record’s second track and operates well within the album’s arc. What is then assumed to be the “original version” is glaringly glommed onto the end of the record, bringing the even tracklisting of System to an unnecessary 11 count.
Lyrically, System contains songs about life and love. The love songs have their muse in Heidi Klum, Seal’s wife at the time. Their relationship would go on to power all of Seal’s recordings from this effort onward, up through to their (surprising) divorce in 2014. If “Wedding Day,” a well-intentioned, if saccharine duet with Klum, doesn’t stick to one’s memory, other selections do. Two such cuts, a pair of ballads at the album’s end, break the rhythmic tides of the long player: “Rolling” and “Immaculate.” Both emphasize Seal’s effectiveness as a songwriter in addressing concepts of regret, disappointment, grace and (eventual) hope as is often experienced universally by all people. As a total package, Seal’s fifth album was mature and spirited.
Released on November 12, 2007, System was smothered commercially by changing attitudes from his label (Warner Brothers) and lack of mainstream radio support. The set’s two lone singles, “Amazing” and “The Right Life,” made the rounds successfully in America (via its dance singles charts) and found affection from more receptive global markets. Those same markets—France, Switzerland and Germany—long since enamored with Seal, awarded gold certifications to System.
Even with its limited commercial reach, System was a triumphant confirmation of the idea of the “creative journey,” something central to Seal’s identity, musically. Though System is direct in its “return” to dance music, it was one that felt natural and authentic, two elements consistently present in Seal’s canon.