Seal was never an ordinary force. With a voice spun equally from sugar and grit, his vocals on DJ Adamski’s “Killer” placed him directly into the British (nu) soul revolution that was gripping the world in the early 1990’s.
Later, he confounded and thrilled when he slid into “Kiss From a Rose”; it made Seal an adult contemporary darling as much as a dancefloor principal.
The release of Seal’s fourth album, third to bear his name, Seal IV (2003) marked a beginning and end. For Seal, his fourth album was about consolidation and exploration. The question then, which lingers even now, is whether Seal and his music was in step with the period or drastically misunderstood and out of time.
Seal’s grip, assured in the first half of the 1990’s, had started to lose its hold by the end of that decade. His third album, the maligned masterpiece Human Being (1998), was greeted by commercial and critical indifference. Thankfully, the record found its calling as one of, if not, his best work at that time with his fans.
Temporarily parting with longtime producer-partner Trevor Horn, Horn handled his first three records, Seal collaborated with Henry Jackman. The album, entitled Togetherland, was canned by Warner Bros. in 2001. Only one cut survived the vaulting, “Heaven” (retitled “This Could Be Heaven”); it appeared on the motion picture soundtrack to ‘Family Man’.
To pass time between the shelving of Togetherland and the recording of what would become Seal IV, Seal recorded two high-profile features with Mylène Farmer (“Les Mots,” 2001 France #2) and Jakatta (“My Vision,” 2002 U.K. #6). The former made a cameo on the French pressing of Seal IV, while the latter appeared on every version of Seal IV. Both songs somewhat suggested the direction Seal walked toward for his fourth album; to realize it, he returned to Horn.
In a way, the abortion of Togetherland lended a sense of rediscovery to Seal IV. Seal, along with Horn (producing) and Mark Batson (co-writing) sewed a taut record that played to Seal’s strength as a songwriter and vocalist.
The musical canvas was pieced together from tasteful pop (electronic, orchestral) and vintage rhythm and blues flavors. What made Seal IV strike hard was its mode of duality when it came to its modernity and antiquity. Songs like “Waiting For You” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” reveled in their “old school soul” twang; the tracks were R&B reduplication perfection. The future remained focal for Seal on “Heavenly (Good Feeling…)” and “My Vision,” both offered hearty, if synthetic arrangements.
Drawing spotlight to “Loneliest Star,” its backbone was a snug, melancholy acoustic rhythm that Seal rode vocally and lyrically to heartbreaking effect. Elsewhere, Seal’s pen prominently shone on the plush reggae sway of “Where There’s Gold,” or he made romantic fantasy flesh on “Touch.” His voice, never lacking pathos or joy, resounded on the mentioned “Waiting For You” and slow build-up of “Love’s Divine”; “Divine” stands arguably one of his finest forms occupied in his entire recording career.
Opening, and closing, with the (mock) Philly soul groover “Get It Together,” Seal IV tracked as Seal’s leanest effort, one where every song hung together and worked as a unit to tell Seal’s musical narrative anew.
Seal IV hit the streets on 9/9/03, during its run it spun off three singles from late 2003 to early 2004: “Get It Together,” “Love’s Divine” and “Waiting For You.” The global chart statistics for each single were fair: “Get It Together” (U.K. #25, Austria #38, Switzerland #22, Sweden #23, Germany #41), “Love’s Divine” (U.K. #68, Austria #11, Switzerland #4, Sweden #43, Germany #4) and “Waiting For You” (U.K. #80). Stateside, all three songs made major strides on a variety of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary and Dance charts; the best performances being “Get It Together” and “Love’s Divine” which topped the U.S. Billboard Dance charts respectively.
As an album, Seal IV made decent dents in various places: U.K. #4, U.S. #3 (his highest chart debut Stateside), Switzerland #1, Austria #7, Germany #14, Sweden #19.
Critically, Seal had his share of opposition and praise. David Medsker, of PopMatters, shared his thoughts on the long player:
The soulful Seal IV is actually much better than one would expect from an artist whose last decent album is now nine years old. At the same time, something about it is off; for the first time, Seal is not merely outside his time (good), but behind it (bad). If only someone had introduced him to the Neptunes. He tries to get the party started with “Get It Together”, a soul-inspired disco number with a good hook but no real high-energy payoff. It may be catchy, but it can’t fill a dance floor, coming off like dance music for people who don’t dance anymore.
The same thing happens with “Waiting For You”, a horn drenched R&B nugget with a far too passive rhythm track. The combination of pop music getting harder while Seal gets softer makes Seal IV sound more antiquated than it should. What some enterprising mixmaster out there should do is take these songs and mash them with the beats from Kenna’s album New Sacred Cow (produced, natch, by one of the Neptunes). Those beats, with these songs, would have created something otherworldly. Maybe next time, and hopefully not four-years-from-now next time.
Other times, Seal was caught in the shadow of Seal (1991), but had fair compliments bestowed upon him by Beth Massa of Amazon.com:
After five years and one do-over later, Seal presents a fourth album that finds the singer growing with his audience. The disc’s opener, “Get It Together,” melds a quiet “live” moment into a horn-and-string disco number, setting the stage for the rest of the disc, which is largely a nod to Detroit-and-Philly-R&B. The British-born musician pulls it off. His rasp and emotive, positive vocals are well suited for the retro stylings he attempts.
“Waiting for You” will flood the dance floor, and he’s unafraid to dig deep for the ballads, Marvin Gaye would approve. The funk is real, but saddled with a pop safety net, and the upbeat tracks need a helping hand from a good remixer before they are as compelling as his seminal singles “Killer” and “Crazy.” Seal never goes all out in any direction and this coolness, combined with Trevor Horn’s perfectionist production, plants the album inescapably in the realm of adult contemporary (although this is as good as adult contemporary gets).
After all was said and settled, Seal IV moved 658,000 copies worldwide; certifications were balanced in gold (U.S.) and platinum (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). Seal’s ability to divide between the austerity of adult contemporary and edgier pop had become “old hat” to some.
Or, as the previously mentioned PopMatters critic David Medsker observed, “Now he has to deal with Justin/Britney/Xtina, thug rap, whiner metal, ClearChannel and the RIAA suing its own customers. There isn’t a chance in hell anyone is going to hear this record.”
Seal became the victim of the entire landscape of music changing in the second decade of his career. Seal’s gifts seemed out of tune with the more cynical and harsh environs of the early 2000’s.
Directed By: Sanji
Seal and Horn did part ways after Seal IV and didn’t return to one another until Seal’s Soul 2 (2012) project, for select cuts. Seal followed Seal IV with a customary “best-of” package in 2004 before releasing System (2007), Soul (2008), Seal 6: Commitment (2010) and the already stated Soul 2. Of the batch, System was the underdog, a return to the grinding dance that was heard on his eponymous debut.
The sales of each following record were either strong, or weak, depending on the territories of the world they operated in. Seal’s appeal as a live artist remains undiminished today; though he may seem nothing short of an enigma to younger ears and “lost” to his die-hards due to his stately covers recordings.
What is sure is that Seal, as a songwriter and interpreter, is one of the best from the last two decades. Passionate, human and in his own way, defiant, Seal is the best there is at what he does. In spite of the “sound of the times,” he didn’t betray his creative flame. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: Seal IV, as the rest of his discography, is readily available in physical and digital retailers everywhere. For current information on Seal, visit his official site.-QH]