N*E*R*D – Seeing Sounds
Synaesthesia is a condition that blurs the distinctions between the senses allowing people to taste colours or see sounds. There’s a belief that we might all have this ability as very small children, but by the time we reach about three months old our brains seem to – “correct’ their wiring. If the opening monologue on this album is to be believed, then Pharrell didn’t grow out of his synaesthesia. In fact, according to his introductory monologue, he closed his eyes when he was about seven and “started seeing sounds”.
It’s a cute tale and it may explain how he became one of the most successful producers on the planet. But unfortunately it’s been all too easy to accuse Pharrell of only seeing, or chasing, the green with his recent work. The Neptunes’ production work has been reduced to a mere brand name, lacking the inventive thrill of their earlier work. Pharrell’s lame cameos on the new Madonna record offer an embarrassing example of the producer riding his celebrity to the bank. Thankfully there’s enough here to prove that at least some of that Neptune brilliance is still around.
This outing for NERD is a marked improvement on their previous outing Fly or Die. Though that’s a little misleading as this record features only three tracks ( Nose, Anti Matter and Love Bomb ) co-written by Pharrell and his Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo. So perhaps the album should be considered a follow-up to the poorly received Pharrell solo album, In My Mind.
The production pair has taken separate paths since fame followed their success, with Hugo keeping well out of the spotlight and not joining NERD on tour. Intriguingly, both Hugo and Pharrell worked on Kenna’s overlooked Make Sure They See My Face album, but the Neptunes pair don’t share a single writing credit. This all ignores the contribution of NERD’s third member, Shae, to Seeing Sounds, but his contributions are negligible at best, merely offering an occasional horny interjection or thuggish pose.
Repeat listens will require the use of the fast-forward button to speed past Pharrell’s biographical guff at the introduction and race straight into the rumbling bass of Time For Some Action, with the lyrics demanding, “If you’re just tuning into your stereo, turn this bitch up her we go”. With The Hives guesting on the track, it’s an easy demand to meet. The coked-up energy of the lead single Everybody Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line For The Bathroom) delivers pure, uncut thrills racking up the album’s best bass line and most ecstatically ridiculous lyric, “one-hundred dollar bills – Ah-coo!”.
Things take an early turn to simpler pop with the future stalkers anthem Window, with its lyrics featuring the cringe worthy line, “Staring in the window/She’s a ten, yo”. With fizzing distortion and hard crunching beats, Anti Matter raises the intensity again, before Spaz crashes through, hurling pop, hip-hop and drum and bass into a seething front row battle. In the fray Pharrell declaring he’s “not a punk bitch”, but then he also claims to be “a little teapot”, again showing off his lyrical inabilities. Yet with the next track, Yeah You, he steps up to offer this generations You’re So Vain, with a handclapping laced flip off to an over-eager groupie – “I bet you heard this song/wonder who I’m talking bout – You!”
The orchestral pomp of Sooner or Later gives Pharrell an opportunity to live out his Sgt Pepper fantasies, rising from a xxx to climax in a solo of Guitar Hero shredding proportion as Pharrell chants “it’s over, baby” for about four minutes. It seems that too much excess is never enough. Happy betrays a Police influence, while the frantic rim shot percussion of Kill Joy is sorely let down by its nursery rhyme lyrics. The crisp production on You Know What coupled with its smooth vocals and trite lyrics veer starboard towards yacht rock, just rescued by Pharrell’s ability to write a great chorus hook.
The album is certainly not the horrible mess that resulted when Timbaland moved from the producer’s chair to the headline slot on the album on Shock Value, but it’s nowhere near the thrilling heights of NERD’s debut In Search Of. The lyrics are as mindless and shallow as the beats are strong, with Pharrell often slipping into syrupy sentiment, sheer arrogance or just plain dopey – “Life is short in black and white, just like little penguins”? Sure, why not.
Pharrell and Chad still have plenty to offer, but they’re far from their peak when they consistently delivered great productions for all comers. They’ve faltered, but you can’t keep an ego like Pharrell’s down. Regardless, it’s hard not to wish for Chad to drop by the studio more often for a little quality control.