Robin Thicke’s “Paula” is the most interesting album of the year. And it might be one of the most interesting albums of the last decade.
That doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, the album is extremely repetitive and difficult to listen to. With the subtlety of a jackhammer, Thicke bares his soul in 14 gut-wrenching songs, alternating between pitiful begging (to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Paula Patton) and “TMI”-level introspection. It’s refreshing to hear an artist drop all pretenses and sing what’s on his or her mind- after all, it’s difficult to accept this as Thicke’s mea culpa unless he’s being open and honest about everything.
But it’s also exhausting. It may be nice to see someone beg for forgiveness, but no one wants to see that person do it for nearly an hour (especially if forgiveness is not forthcoming). It’s like the scene in “East of Eden” where James Dean throws himself at his disapproving father’s feet and gets no compassion or love in return. The lack of subtlety or symbolism on “Paula” is jarring and turns an interesting concept into an uncomfortable front-row seat to one man’s public self-flagellation. Done right, an album about anguish, pain and love lost can obviously work. For instance, Eric Clapton was able to write an entire album about how he was in love with his best friend’s wife. What made it palatable was that he used symbols, private references and characters to convey his feelings and pain. While it’s clear who Eric is singing about, it’s not so obvious that you feel like he’s clubbing you over the head with a 2X4.
Musically, it’s a perfectly acceptable record. “Paula” showcases Thicke’s prodigious talent. After all, he not only co-produced the album, he wrote all of the songs in a three week period after finishing his “Blurred Lines” tour and played multiple instruments. Anyone expecting another “Blurred Lines” or a similarly over-produced song from Pharrell Williams will be sorely disappointed. “Paula” harkens back to his pre-2013 sound and is very similar to “Lost Without U,” his biggest hit prior to “Blurred Lines.” It is a sparsely produced album that relies heavily on acoustic guitar, piano and horns.
There are some good songs on the record. “You’re My Fantasy” sounds like it could have been sung by Justin Timberlake (and been a big hit for him), while lead single, “Get Her Back,” is undeniably catchy. “Whatever I Want” is one of the few upbeat songs on the album, and with its great groove and sing-along potential in concert, the song is sure to be a hit with fans.
The record also showcases his derivative tendencies. To be fair, all artists imitate others and there’s a fine line between homage and plagiarism. Thicke, who has never been shy about aping Marvin Gaye (similarly, Gaye once wrote an entire album about his divorce), has a great voice and style of his own. However, he spends much of the album imitating other artists. In “Living in New York City,” he does his best James Brown impersonation (right down to the “Living in America”-style wails). “Lock the Door” sounds like a rejected cut from “Ray,” “Time of Your Life” is supposed to sound like Sinatra, but Thicke ends up sounding more like Michael Buble, and “Too Little Too Late” could have been one of those studio-created songs used by the Michael Jackson estate to put on a posthumous album. Another song, “Tippy Toes,” is supposed to sound like Elvis Presley (and even talks about girls twerking – a peculiar reference for him). Maybe it ties to the fact that he hates himself for blowing his marriage and being someone else is easier for him than taking a long look in the mirror.
What really makes this record stand out is the very fact that Thicke recorded it. Is he really trying to win back his estranged wife (whom he, admittedly, hasn’t seen in months)? Or is this damage control from a savvy artist who knows there is a huge backlash against him and hopes that playing the penitent husband will help him win back his fans?
A picture speaks a thousand words and videos can read like novels. The “Get Her Back” video shows a bloodied and teary-eyed Thicke begging for forgiveness while what seems like actual text messages between him and his wife flash on screen. All of Thicke’s messages are remorseful while all of Patton’s purported messages are dismissive or unforgiving. “I wrote a whole album about you,” reads one of Thicke’s texts. “I don’t care,” is the response he gets. Other responses he gets include: “You drink too much,” “You ruined everything,” and “You embarrassed me.” While Patton seems to be the wronged party (if press reports are to be believed), if you read the out-of-context text messages, it’s Thicke that you end up feeling bad for. The video for “Get Her Back” seems less about getting her back and more about making him seem sympathetic. The fact that he spends the video cavorting around with a naked Patton look-a-like only raises more questions about his motives.
Indeed, the album seems to be a mea culpa, not to Patton, but to the general public. “Blurred Lines” made Thicke into a megastar (do you realize he had never been a sole headliner for a tour until last year?) but it also became a curse. Its controversial video and misogynistic lyrics made Thicke into a giant target (just Google “#AskRobinThicke” if you don’t believe me). His image took an even bigger beating after the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, where he let Miley Cyrus twerk all over him and got his hand stuck in the cookie jar at an after-party. It’s an interesting conundrum for him. He wouldn’t be as famous or as rich as he is now without “Blurred Lines,” but maybe he’d still be married and there would be no backlash against him. In fact, it’s possible that “Blurred Lines” may have killed his career rather than launched it. Considering the poor early sales numbers for “Paula” (the album sold fewer than 54 copies in Australia during its first week- not 54,000 – 54), that’s not out of the realm of possibility.
If “Blurred Lines” was Thicke’s Faustian bargain, then “Paula” is his attempt to renege on the deal. Time will tell whether or not it was successful.