Music Reviews
Volcanic Sunlight

Saul Williams Volcanic Sunlight

(Sony-BMG / Columbia) Rating - 6/10

To say Saul Williams has a way with words would be an understatement. His hyper-literate mix of political and spiritual pondering isn’t for everyone, but for those who get it, Saul isn’t just sharing his thoughts - he’s speaking words the world needs to hear; a sapient, emphatic voice in the midst of a genre plagued by aimless braggadocio and macho posturing.

This aptitude for words lies in his ‘slam’ poetry roots - much of his early material was essentially his early writing set to music - and his rhymes have been brought to life by a string of talented producers and musicians, most notably Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor on The Inevitable Rise and Fall of Niggy Tardust. Each of his first three records offer something different musically, but one factor has been ever-present so far: the beats are intricate and unrelenting, providing an excellent counterweight to his occasionally hippy musings.

Furthermore, he’s proven himself as an able vocalist, and with each record the spoken word has made way for more and more actual songs - a trend which Volcanic Sunlight continues. By his own admission, this is a pop record - so much so that pretty much all semblance of hip hop has gone. Sadly, it’s that final leap that prevents this album from fulfilling its potential.

Saul’s about as open-minded as it gets, and alongside all the incisive commentary on racial equality and rampant materialism has always been a certain element of peace and love and light. That’s an admirable thing, and until this point it’s been sufficiently restrained so as not to become offputting. But on Volcanic Sunlight, it frequently becomes the primary focus. In an interview before the release of the record, he said it himself: “Volcanic Sunlight is the innermost part of something special... it’s my attempt to articulate what I feel when I feel love.”

It would take a less cynical man than I to not feel just a tad uncomfortable hearing that. And I know that’s my problem, but it dominates the discourse throughout the album. In Triumph, he sings earnestly: “The triumph of love is in the victory / The triumph of fear is in defeat”, later concluding with the especially groansome “The triumph of heart is in the beat”. These tracks just come across a little empty, particularly when there’s no wider context. It would probably be great if I was high on ecstasy. But I’m not.

Elsewhere, attempts to create catchy vocal hooks often fall flat. There’s a goofy, almost ‘Barney The Dinosaur’ quality to the line “Follow me into the... wavy wavy water” (Look To The Sun), and while I’m sure there’s some deep hidden meaning behind Dance, lines like “Hey hey, everybody come and dance with me” are particularly grating. This, from a man renowned for mind-blowing wordplay, is bitterly disappointing.

Much of the music has slowed down and mellowed out, too, and it’s a change for the worse. Let’s not forget that this is the man responsible for Act III Scene 2 (Shakespeare), a ferocious, sharp-witted diatribe against the Iraq war. This is the man who brought us Black History Month, which deployed a beat so deep and heavy that the aftershocks could probably sink a small island. What’s missing here is the sheer aggression and fast-spitting wit that made his first three records so vital.

Having said all that, there are a handful of tracks on Volcanic Sunlight that deserve revisiting. Patience is one highlight, with pounding drums, brooding horns and a mysterious synth melody. The glitchy groove that runs through Girls Have More Fun is highly addictive, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear before commercial breaks on MTV2. And title track Volcanic Sunlight is dark and menacing, coming closest to regaining some of the grit of his older material. When it’s good, it’s great; it’s just a shame so many tracks fall short of his usually very high standards.