Like many artists of various genres and mediums, Paloma Faith has emerged from the chaotic, dispiriting mess of 2016 with The Architect and a mission to change her message and speak more directly about social injustices and political embarrassments. It’s what Katy Perry chose to call “purposeful pop.” Paloma Faith’s “message album” actually turned out similar to Perry’s, in that the “messages” are not always so clear, and every song could double as a traditional pop song about troubled romance. However, Faith’s songs are not as vapid as Perry’s turned out to be, and so Faith succeeds at least halfway in her stated goal.
The Architect is Faith’s first album since 2014, and although she has kept quite busy with new events professionally and personally– being a coach on the UK’s The Voice, having a child – her new songs don’t sound so different from those off her first three albums. That isn’t bad, though, as she excels at filling an album with her broad, brassy vocals and relentless choruses that instantly draw you into each track.
The Architect makes its loftier goals known through the insertion of a few vocal clips, beginning with a monologue by Samuel L. Jackson, pronouncing that “evolution is now” and we are all capable of it. He intones, “You are the poor, the refugee, the bloody victim. You are the power, the winner and the fighter… breathe in, you’re lucky to.” That sentiment accurately outlines the general tone of the album. Even when Faith is singing about a regretful Pro-Brexit voter (“Guilty”) or about homelessness (“Surrender”), the songs are big and bombastic in ways that are more likely to lift you up, or make you feel like a “fighter,” rather than depress you further.
Although Faith has stated that “every song was dealing with a different subject matter” that she cared about, most of those songs can easily double for her classic pop. That may seem to be a cop-out to make the music more accessible to apolitical listeners, or it could just be what Faith said in the same interview, that she believes “true art is always open to interpretation [so] the songs can mean whatever.” That’s a nice notion, but when choosing to wade into the political discourse, it would be nice to hear explicit mentions of the issues at hand, especially when other public figures like to avoid discourse at all. But perhaps that’s just me.
The title track is a “heartbreak song from Mother Nature… to humanity,” and it’s a very good and attention-grabbing track to welcome you into the album. It’s followed by “Guilty,” which is basically a “heartbreak song” from the perspective of a Brexit “Leave” voter, but could also sound like Britain singing to the EU, with lyrics like “I know I was wrong, now I’m hurting myself… please, take me back.” Her first single, “Crybaby,” is pretty accessible pop, but its message is a little less clear. It is likely about a male partner, who Faith is encouraging to express emotions, even though it’s not considered attractive. The lyrics are a little less than compelling, with lines like “You can talk to me, spare those whiskey dreams, Don’t have to man up, That phrase kinda sucks.” Throughout the album, Faith displays more talent for writing or performing a chorus, and wisely makes most of her songs consist primarily of those, rather than more complicated verses, which often just result in weak lines like “your love is stuck to me like sadness to the blues” (“Still Around”). The fact that Faith’s songs are primarily still tightly-constructed pop songs makes it harder to find deeper meaning in the lyrics, but they at least succeed in making you feel some of what Faith is singing about.
Besides the first few songs – which are quite catchy and ease you into the album nicely – other highlights include “I’ll Be Gentle,” and “Warrior.” The former song, a duet with John Legend, is very soulful and warm in a way that perfectly matches with its message, extolling the importance of being kind to each other. The latter is written by Sia, and really sounds it. It’s a song about refugees, and the lyrics can actually support it (“take me in… now that the enemy is closing in”). Interestingly, both of these songs – in addition to “Surrender” – feature the word surrender, which is an interesting recurrent theme for an album supposedly about being a fighter. But those word choices makes clearer the real work of the album. Maybe it’s not so much an album where Faith says “here are my songs about social injustices and how I feel about them, specifically” but “here is an album that will help you, and comfort your aching heart in this messed-up time we’re stuck in.” In that way – rather than being an album where Faith lectures about her pet causes – the album succeeds. It’s a soulful, emotional album that can help you express your perhaps equally large emotions about various social and political problems. Or, if you prefer, you can just let it express your current personal heartbreak.
However, the album still feels about five songs too long. After “Lost and Lonely” – a song that sticks out on the album by its charming use of girl-group backing vocals – the album starts to drag and the songs correspondingly become less “purposeful.” Or at least, if they are explicitly about something, as in “WW3,” the production is underwhelming. The back third of the album is generally filled with songs relating to more personal struggles – expectations (“Tonight’s Not the Only Night”), body positivity (“My Body”), the dehumanization of fame (“The Price of Fame”) – as well as a song about dancing your anxieties away (following in the 2017 footsteps of Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey). These songs are okay, but after the bigger scope of the first half of the album, they feel a little weak and unnecessary.
Generally, Paloma Faith has another solid-enough pop album under her belt. The steps incorporating her political beliefs into her songwriting are baby-sized, but the results are still satisfying enough, and enable the listener to consider real-world issues but only to a certain degree. That’s not such a bad thing – after all even if it’s purposeful, pop still wants to be pop.