The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
Can you truly understand a piece of music without a close read of its lyrics?
On one hand, the music itself—the melodies, the beats, the “ooh”s and “aah”s—that’s what gets people to dance, or at the very least to tap their feet. But when looking at the full picture of a song or an album as a whole, the words themselves are meticulously selected just like every guitar riff, string flourish or drum fill. Why this take and not that one? Why this specific word or this phrase and not something else?
That’s why I’ve always (over)analyzed every lyric sheet of everything I listen to. But for whatever reason, that gets thrown out the window when I listen to a song that’s not in English. Instead, I use this as an opportunity to lean into the feel of the songs themselves instead of obsessively trying to figure out what they mean, just as I would with instrumental music.
To give yourself the space to interpret music in this way is a powerful thing, even though I know I’m missing out on the part I usually rely on. For instance, Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime was one of my favorite albums of the year, yet I still haven’t read into a single word sung on that album, instead deciding to solely lose myself in some of the best guitarwork I’ve ever heard. Ditto for Sigur Rós; “Glósóli” is one of my favorite songs of all time, a song I’ve heard hundreds of times, yet I refuse to figure out what Jónsi’s lyrics actually mean (I know he’s not singing, “And here they come,” as the guitar crashes into a wall of sound in one of my favorite builds in music history, but I want to think he is).
And that applies to another one of my most-listened-to records of 2021: Rodrigo Amarante’s stunning second solo album Drama, his first since 2014’s Cavalo.
It seems as if Amarante, a Brazilian expat who now lives in Los Angeles, is OK with that sentiment as well, telling NPR earlier this year, “There’s something beautiful about it, too, if you don’t understand the words,” adding, “You have more space in that mirror to project; you can invent something that’s there and you can occupy that space and make your own [understanding].”
Amarante’s been around the block for quite some time, and there’s a decent chance you’ve heard his music without realizing it’s him. For starters, he’s likely best-known in the U.S. for his song “Tuyo,” which acts as the theme song for Netflix’s Narcos. He was also part of Los Hermanos, an early-2000s Brazilian alt-rock band that blew up in Latin America, and Orquestra Imperial, which combined samba and big band music. For the indie rock fans, Amarante also played with Little Joy alongside The Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro, releasing a cult-favorite album that still ranks near the top of the best Strokes side projects.
Excluding the slow, string-driven instrumental album opener, Drama’s remaining 10 tracks are essentially split between English and Amarante’s native Portuguese. Every song on the album is warm and beautiful, marked at different points by laidback acoustic guitar, old-timey horn sections, driving percussion, cinematic string arrangements and morose piano. But even though there’s a solid musical through line to the record, I surprisingly found myself more drawn to Drama’s Portuguese songs than its English ones, perhaps because I allowed myself to become more immersed in its grooves and polyrhythms than when I’m able to deconstruct Amarante’s lyrics.
And that’s not to discount Amarante’s English-language lyrics throughout Drama, which find more importance in little moments and flashes of imagery than any sort of storytelling. They’re frequently beautiful, as well, particularly on the piano-led album closer “The End,” as Amarante, in his husky, Hamilton Leithauser-esque gravelly baritone, sings, “Early fall painted red / Broken foal put to bed / Bitter words against the sun / Before a night that soon will never come.” A string section backs his melancholic piano to a stunning effect, and drums enter as Amarante croons, “To live is to fall.” Imagine a cross between Leithauser and Rostam’s “1959” and Julien Baker’s “Go Home”—it’s not quite as light and dreamlike as the former, or as heart-on-your-sleeve as the latter, but it strikes a nice balance between the two.
“The End” is a musical outlier on Drama, serving as its beautiful knockout track that could likely be inserted into the emotional highpoint of any movie. Most of the record settles into a more electric, groovy version of the sound that Kings of Convenience have perfected over the past two decades. The English-language “Tango” is laidback, but playful, with a Whitney-like lead guitar line that both refuses to sit still and never tries to overpower the song. A lot of it sounds like a more fully realized version of Little Joy.
But it’s the Portuguese tracks I keep coming back to, where I’m able lean more into the feel of the song and imagine I’m somewhere else entirely. “Tara” recalls the bossa nova greats of the past, complete with upright bass and big band horns in the chorus. Close your eyes and you’re on a dance floor just feet from the beach in Brazil, fully head over heels in love with your dance partner and feeling like nothing else in the world matters except for following their next move. It’s as relaxing and calming as anything I’ve heard all year.
“Eu Com Você” is a little more upbeat, but it doesn’t follow too far behind “Tara”’s lead. The dancers’ steps are a bit more hurried this time, a little more unsure of where they’re moving next. It’s steamier, a bit more anxious, but every bit as romantic. Ditto for “Tanto,” which sees string and horn sections play off each other. There’s an indescribable hint of sadness and yearning to the track, however, like something’s not quite right.
If “The End” is the slow, funereal outlier on one end, the upbeat and playful “Maré,” the album’s clear highlight, represents the complete other side of Drama’s sonic spectrum. When I first heard the single back in April, my first thought was: “Wow, this is the best Beirut song I’ve heard in years!” (I also thought the same thing when I first heard Japanese Breakfast’s “Paprika.”) Opening with whistling on top of a fingerpicked acoustic guitar that sounds straight out of Django Unchained, it builds into a song so anthemic, I feel like I could still sing along with it, despite knowing zero Portuguese. The track is flat-out fun, the sort of song Amarante’s occasional collaborator Devendra Banhart wishes he could write.
I’m sure a ton is lost in translation here. Maybe it isn’t the romantic album I imagine it is—maybe there are references here and there that completely change the meaning of these 11 songs. Hell, when delving deep into albums entirely in English, I’ve completely missed the mark before, why couldn’t I here when I don’t even understand what Amarante’s singing more than half the time?
Amarante, in his aforementioned NPR interview, talked about longing as a theme, specifically a more melancholic offshoot of it known in Portuguese as “saudade,” a word he defined as both “nourishing” and full of “sorrow.” And without understanding a lick of Portuguese, that yearning, both happy and sad, is entirely easy to comprehend on Drama, even if it’s mostly through the music itself.
Maybe we don’t need to understand the complete story, with all of its moving parts and twists and turns, to still be able to grasp the meaning of a record. Maybe none of that matters at all and the only important truly thing is how we, the listeners, project our own meanings and emotions onto music, regardless of what the artist set out to convey—maybe that’s why Bob Dylan famously never explained what his songs actually meant, changing the meaning each time he was asked. Maybe that’s why, after putting all of his lyrics on the album art of his debut solo record, Amarante followed that up with a surrealist cover for Drama that could quite literally mean anything.
But one thing’s for sure: No matter what language you speak, no matter how you understand this album, Drama is a triumph.
Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.