I’m A Dream
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Seinabo Sey’s debut EP For Madeleine (released in January 2015) set musical tongues a-wagging. Sey’s unique vocals combined with a dramatic soul pop sound to produce a winning concoction. Her debut album Pretend followed later that same year and featured the songs from the EP alongside a further collection of classy soul-pop numbers. Aided and abetted by Magnus Lidehäll’s shimmering pop sheen production, it showed a penmanship that didn’t flinch from the thrills and spills of life, even daring to spend time openly criticizing herself.
So three and a half years later the Swedish siren’s sophomore album I’m A Dream is here but it hasn’t been an easy gestation. According to an interview with Nolan Feeney for Billboard published last month, she came perilously close to turning her back on the music industry. Tired of the limitations and expectations placed on black women in her homeland and the paint-by-numbers approach to Swedish pop music, she even found herself bored with touring her material, memorably summing it up as “eating chips and gaining weight and sitting in cars.”
Two things shook her from her torpor. Firstly came the bold musical and aesthetic statement that was Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016). Inspired by her “fuck shit up” attitude, it released Sey from the constraints (both external and of her own making) of caring so much about what others thought or wanted from her.
The second was a life-changing trip to West Africa (Senegal and Gambia to be precise). Despite a period of loneliness and battling with local dialects, the stay cemented a link with her recently deceased father’s heritage (he himself was a famous musician in Gambia).
Album opener “I Love You” is perfection. Drama swells deep inside the restrained vocals, rising and falling like the tide. A tale of total devotion, it beguiles not just with its seductive music but also its lyrical content: “Cause if you love somebody, set them free / So here are your wings, my baby / I just want you to know if you leave / That I am yours, yours, yours.”
Loss and grief shuffle into view on the understated groove of “Never Get Used To.” Emptiness permeates through the cracks in Sey’s voice as she delivers a love letter to her father: “Calling for you is your daughter / I look for you round every corner / I need to hear your voice, it’s harder than ever before.”
The sensual swagger of “I Owe You Nothing” oozes confidence from every pore. With a drum pattern akin to Pharrell and Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Sey sings of empowerment and kicking bad habits to the curb: “I won’t help you understand / I don’t need no helping hand, no / See, these aren’t tears, this is the ocean / These aren’t fears, this is devotion.”
There’s no letup in the quality as “My Eye” contains vocal runs to die for and a pulsating electro throb to accompany Sey’s fragile but beautiful falsetto. “Truth” is a piano-led ballad that seems startlingly simple after the electronic backdrops thus far. On “Remember,” Sey duets with Jacob Banks and their voices are impeccable together on a gospel-inflected slice of heaven. The song’s outro with its insistent percussion and cinematic strings is stirring in the extreme.
Elsewhere, the jaunty, ‘90s R&B a la Rodney Jerkins of “Good In You” is a tale of eyes meeting across the crowded dance floor and “Hold Me As I Land” finishes the album off in style. Beginning with voice and Fender Rhodes in perfect harmony, it adds gospel choir and piano to extend to a place that brings Stevie Wonder to mind.
But if there is one song that is emblematic of the whole album, it is “Breathe.” Lyrically it is about coming to terms with the past and all of its associated anxieties. Musically, it has the same soul pop sweep but allied to a euphoric swathe of strings and the uplifting presence of a choir. Yet still a feeling of sadness pervades due to the texture of Sey’s voice. Everything she sings has a thread of blue running through it and that contrast to the uplifting musical backdrop creates the magic.
What she also does successfully is leave us wanting more. At just ten songs (nine if we discount the “Hakim” interlude), the album doesn’t suffer under the weight of its own pretensions. This is pop music with soul delivered perfectly by a unique singer. What’s not to love?
Notable Tracks: “Breathe” | “I Love You” | “I Owe You Nothing” | “Remember”