Oh, JulietaBy: José Manuel Simián
It's always tricky for a singer-songwriter to name check a colleague in a song. It puts your song on the spot by making the listeners compare it in their mind with the work of the referenced musician. But this obvious risk doesn't seem to intimidate Julieta Venegas: the chorus of "Esperaba," the breezy opening track of her latest album Algo Sucede, talks about floating over Buenos Aires and even the whole world and the Universe upon listening to the songs of Charly García.
Big mistake. Because the songs of Charly García —the great ones, the ones that immediately come to your head— are millions of miles away from "Esperaba," an enjoyable but rather conventional pop tune with soft synthesizers and handclaps. A song full of hope and aspirations in the lyrics but that never goes anywhere deeper (or higher) than that Charly reference and how it could make you float over Buenos Aires in your mind. (A more judicious songwriter, León Gieco, took a very different strategy when writing about his own craft in 1992: he simply made the whole song about how no one could escape Charly's influence.)
All of the above doesn't mean that "Esperaba" or the rest of Algo Sucede are completely charmless. The problem is, again, one of comparisons. Most of us fell in love with Venegas' songs at the turn of the century, right around the release of her second album, Bueninvento. She was original and brave, going where not many singer-songwriters were going at the time. She could bring pop and Mexican roots together with an indie attitude. She was sexy in the best possible way of the term: by being unique. She allowed herself to be both fragile and a little rara. From then on, Venegas was on the rise: she became a little less rara while she exhibited a notable knack for pop songs ("Andar Conmigo," "Algo Está Cambiando," "Limón y Sal" or "Eres Para Mí" still work like perfect pop machines) and turned her accordion into her weapon and an inseparable part of her powerful image.
But after her triumphant 2004 Unplugged album, the rising curve seems to have reached a bit of a plateau. The original edge is gone and the pop hooks have become less memorable. The music is always delicate and well produced, but if you had been impressed by the evolution Venegas' songwriting, you can't help feeling disappointed in the linearity and predictability of most of the songs that populate her albums. Take, for instance, "Se Explicará": a sunny tune that moves forward charmingly but boringly, while the lyrics promise that everything will be fine in the end—that everything will, somehow explain itself. No problem in writing positive songs, of course; the problem here is that there's no mystery attached to what ends up coming off as half-hearted optimism. Things are not much better when Venegas addresses the political reality of Mexico in "Explosión": her commentary is equally uninspiring ("Tell me if you're going to let all of this happen in front of you"), while the music follows predictable paths.
Which is a shame, because we miss being surprised by Venegas—not by repeating what she did before, but by continue to evolve into a mature, more complex songwriter. Here's hoping.
See the video for Algo Sucede's latest single, "Ese Camino," below: