You might get the wrong impression from this album’s title and its album cover. You might think, as I did, that this would be her Beyoncé, an album that explores erotic adventure and satisfaction, particularly given her recently announced engagement to rapper Birdman. But you’d be wrong. It’s in fact closer to Lemonade, an album full of tales of woe, heartbreak, and betrayal, and personal attempts to find redemption in bad relationships.
Or in other words, the songs here are no different from the majority in Braxton’s career. With hits like “Un-Break My Heart” she’s rode the charts to upward of 60 million sales focusing on doomed or failing relationships, in the form of power ballads where the power is often undeniable thanks to her striking, deep, and thoughtful voice. In fact her last album was an explicit concept album on the theme of failed love, the Babyface collaboration Love, Marriage, & Divorce.
She carries on exactly in this vein on Sex & Cigarettes. The title cut, for instance, is not remotely erotic, but a tortured lament from a woman lying in bed as her man returns smelling of, you guessed it, sex and cigarettes. Heartbreakingly, Braxton sings “At least try to lie to me” as he silently climbs into her bed, not giving a damn about what she thinks. It’s details like this that give the song power, poignancy, and replay value – another example is the world-weary bridge, where she cries “I can’t believe it, we’re going through this again/We’re too old”, two lines that come across as a deep and exhausted sigh, conjuring up years and years of the couple’s toxic relationship in an active listener’s mind. And all of this tied to a desperately pounding piano and the masterful acting in Braxton’s quavering yet forceful voice makes for a spot-on psychological tour-de-force.
There are other tours-de-force in the album’s first half – in fact, impressively, every one of its four tracks is one. “Deadwood” is a terrific opener and lead single, very well judged in its emotional crescendo – it starts off anchored rhythmically by an acoustic guitar, before a synthetic beat punches in after the first chorus and its emphatic “I may be down, but I’ll turn it around” climax, adding a layer of resilience to the song’s depressive core. Then, by the end, strings have come to the forefront as Braxton wordlessly scats her pain at another bad lover’s emotional betrayal. It’s the sort of short story that a college professor would approve of – it’s got a clear beginning, middle, and end. And it works.
Then there’s “Long as I Live”, which has an undeniable, irresistible chorus, even as it’s easily the most depressing on the album: “Long as I live/I’ll never get over/It’s killing me/I’ll never get over”. The thing is, you don’t believe that she’ll “never get over”, not when it’s Braxton singing. She sounds too strong, and too much an individual. So the overall effect is curiously uplifting. It adds pathos and believability to the melodrama.
The last track of the album’s very strong first half is “FOH” (stands for “fuck outta here”), which you might expect to be the most rebellious, as it is on the chorus: “If you don’t want me around, then don’t come around/And cloud up the atmosphere/Fuck outta here”. Except the music is slow, mournful, and dominated by a piano heavy on the sustain pedal. And there’s an opening line that becomes more and more alarming every time you hear it: “It’s been 37 hours, 7 minutes, 30 seconds/And you still haven’t responded to me”. That’s so exact – frighteningly exact. Just what has she been doing all that time?
So the first half of the album’s endearingly brief 30 minutes is composed of songs that are engaging, interesting, and emotionally complex. Yet the second half isn’t. The songs sadly deteriorate quickly in quality, with the music, performances, and lyrics all turning into sentimental goo, as the song titles grimly predict: “Sorry”, “My Heart”, “Coping”, and “Missin’”. Many listens have failed to open them up – they still sound like kitsch melodrama after multiple plays. Their sappiness is draining, and detracts from the sustained excellence of the album’s first half.
But then I only like half of the things in the album’s title, so perhaps it’s appropriate that I only like half of the album.