Since first collaborating with Brian May and Roger Taylor during his almost-triumphant run on 2009’s iteration of “American Idol,” every Queen + Adam Lambert performance features the latter finding new ways to humble himself. Despite having his own rich clear tenor with a vocal range of three octaves (a B2-B5 semitone if you’re wondering) and a dynamic piercing falsetto that could shatter glass, Lambert spends his time on Queen’s stage paying homage to the band’s late vocalist Freddie Mercury, almost apologizing for daring to approach the singer’s operatic canon.
That said, Lambert’s career is nothing to sniff at. Starting with his gold-certified debut, “For Your Entertainment,” and its Grammy-nominated single, “Whataya Want from Me,” he went on to release two additional solidly sparkly solo albums finding his place and flashy Gaga-lite pop sound.
Through much of “Velvet,” his fourth solo album, however, Lambert doesn’t seem satisfied to play nice, anymore. Perhaps tired of being Queen’s plus one, or smoothing over his rougher vocal edges, the 38-year-old out singer goes for something less glamorously amorously entertaining and more grimily soulful and sleekly funky than we’re used to hearing from him.
Sorry to have to paraphrase a Queen song here, but Lambert wants to break free.
“You try to put me in a box, make me something I’m not,” he coos in a slippery falsetto on the sumptuous R&B-inspired “Superpower,” while riding a thumbed bass line like a surfer crashing a wave. Similar sentiments geared toward the idea of new attitudes and newer musical influences are glued onto bits of “Velvet” often enough that it becomes both a mantra and a tic.
It’s odd that the freedom Lambert is looking to achieve, though, starts off with a brittle tremor not unlike Duran Duran’s “Notorious” album, all Jimmy Jam and Terrty Lewis synths-meet-Chic vibes. The flickering high life guitar of Nile Rodgers, a producer on “Notorious,” can be felt across the flutter of “Superpower,” the corny, yet pleasant “Loverboy” and “Roses,” which features Rodgers on guitar. Although in giving Rodgers the sonic spotlight, he threatens to overpower Lambert’s soft warbling highs and the arrangement’s watery ambience. Too much dazz-dazz-disco-jazz? Perhaps.
Luckily, Lambert and producer Fred Ball (Rihanna, The Carters) find their center and funnel that liquid toward a solid, catchy chorus worthy of an old parquet floor (other willowy dance tracks such as “Loverboy” and “Love Don’t” weren’t as lucky, and end up fizzling) and a retro-pulsating groove.
In fact, Lambert’s fellow co-writers and producers Josh Cumbee (Sia, Armin van Buuren), Tommy English (Carly Rae Jepsen, The Knocks), Butch Walker (Weezer, Taylor Swift) and more, help make “Velvet” plush and poignant, as well as more textural (crushed velvet?!) and tougher than the singer’s previous outings.
Where that texture and toughness gel most are on the two best tracks of “Velvet”: “Stranger You Are” and “On The Moon,” both vocalized in Lambert’s lowest register with grit and gristle. The former features an understatedly contagious chorus and an uneasily tense pronouncement of the self (“The stranger you are / They wanna keep you locked in the dark / The stranger you are / They’re gonna try to tear you apart”) that’s brassy, sassy and sensual. A slow and spaciously atmospheric “On the Moon” holds a similar slither and sensuality in its grasp. Only here, Lambert uses a dozen jazz and vocal soul runs, rhapsodizes about tripping on the moon, scratches up his pipes, and winds up sounding, sensationally, like Erykah Badu.
Once liberated, Lambert rarely goes back to the hammy, glam-trap pop of his previous albums. Led by the fluidity of a fretless bass line and an ethereal ambience, only the Butch Walker-produced “Overglow” touches on the high-pitched usual of Lambert’s operatic approach to pop. Elsewhere, Lambert’s multi-tracked vocals — in-the-red and ever-so-slightly fuzz-toned — are front and center on “Comin’ in Hot,” “Ready to Run” and “New Eyes,” which finds the vocalist roughly grinding his way through the rock-y terrain of distorted guitars and crashing cymbals.
The luscious, emotive “Feel Something” finds Lambert and his sound at their most naked and wet. A few guitar tricks, a Satie-like piano, a set of background voices hewing close to his teary lyrical reading. “Closer to You” is another spare piece. Startubg with a piano line eerily similar to “Let It Be” — complete with a Ringo-inspired snap to its snare drum – Lambert elegantly pleads, “All I want to be is brand new.”
Lambert stakes his claim toward independence with the title track, which opens the album. After an aquatic house music intro, he announces that he wants to, “Rock something in my own special way, like its tailor-made for me.” He could just as well be talking about his career in covers — from “American Idol” to the Queen apprenticeship — or a relationship or his out and proud place in the world or his view forward as to where wants to go as an artist in 2020. Either way, Adam Lambert has made “Velvet” a testament to finding his way, personally and professionally, in what is his most accomplished solo work to date.