Like all very good pop stars, Nelly Furtado’s career is one that can be dissected into chunks, each segment representing a different era, a different genre and a different performer. We’ve witnessed Furtado as the sprightly ray of light that brought us ‘I’m Like A Bird’ and watched her evolve into the sultry R&B queen that conquered the world with Timbaland on tracks like ‘Maneater’ and ‘Say It Right’. Serious Furtado fans will also have seen her shun the English language altogether for her more introspective album ‘Mi Plan’ (sung entirely in Spanish) before turning to indie pop for inspiration, last seen popping up on Blood Orange’s acclaimed album from last year.
The version of Furtado we find on The Ride, her sixth studio album, has little in common with the Furtado who shot to fame at the turn of the millennium. Furtado has largely abandoned the stylish R&B that made her a household name and adopted a more experimental sound – at least for the most part.
‘Cold Hard Truth’ is a punchy opener, Furtado on fiery form, baring her teeth as she snaps and quips over a gritty electronic hum. It’s a sound few will associate with Furtado, jagged and obtrusive, but fitting for a record that she has dubbed her “hangover album“, written after a long period of charity work, self-development and relative anonymity. The result is an album that has a lot to say about the quest for happiness and the obstacles that come along the way, something of a specialist subject for Furtado it seems.
‘Flatline’, one of the album’s standout tracks, begins with dark, creeping electro-R&B before bursting into a rockier chorus, Furtado wailing over a clatter of drums, demanding resuscitation, emotion and life. A similar sound is heard on ‘Live’, probably Furtado’s best vocal turn on the album, initially sounding robotic and detached before allowing herself to mellow, succumbing to the gentle guitar, lowering her guard. And this is an album that deals with the tension between guardedness and openness, Furtado at times laying herself bare, while at others clambering for safety behind brash, electronic drones, the feeling stripped from her voice until she is emotionless and unable to be hurt.
The album’s centrepiece, dance track ‘Sticks and Stones’, is perhaps the poppiest track Furtado has recorded to date, its snappy hook and glossy production reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepsen. It also nicely showcases what makes the album such an enjoyable listen – namely its production courtesy of John Congleton and Mark Taylor. Quirky percussion and riveting synth melodies give The Ride its edge, carving out a sound that is fresh but mature, sophisticated but interesting. Listening to ‘Pipe Dreams’, we’re reminded of Furtado’s work with Dev Hynes, and though it’s a pity he couldn’t lend his hand here, it’s clear he’s made a lasting impression on Furtado, the track’s cool, soulful vibes reminiscent of his album Freetown Sound.
On The Ride, there is the distinct feeling that Nelly Furtado is doing things her own way. Her voice has retained its casual, cool girl edge, but now there’s something much more vulnerable sitting alongside it. In ‘Palaces’, there’s a moment when the music breaks, leaving only Furtado accompanied by a lone guitar. Suddenly she is alone, sounding almost desolate, her voice uncertain and fragile. This is the juxtaposition at the heart of the record. It’s an album that celebrates strength but acknowledges that this is something often born from vulnerability. “You’re gonna be alright again,” Furtado sings on ‘Phoenix’ – a fitting closer for an album that honours resurrection, defiance and never giving up – surely something Furtado knows a thing or two about.