Embrya – Maxwell (1998)

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It says something when critics continue to predictable criticise an artists sophomore album with the accusations of being too much a departure from the debut often thrown in the faces of musicians who have attempted to change the direction of their musical careers.

Maxwell certainly suffered from this problem with his second album “Embrya”. The debut has made Maxwell into a star and he had received success in the charts and also critical acclaim for “Urban Hang Suite” in which he was riding on the wave of the Neo Soul movement as he brought Soul/Funk/R&B and Jazz into a contemporary style which was accessible to the masses but still retained it’s gravitas.

Maxwell had produced a debut album that was smooth, easy to listen to, modern with a ode to the past and was littered with radio freindly hook filled songs.

With “Embrya” he rips up the rule book and releases an album which was indulgent, experimental and ultimately unique.

The lyrical content is deeper as he delves into a world in which love and sex and relationships have all become one and he is seeing everything in a liner way. There is an insistence on making simple words bolder and with more meaning. The use of words like “You” and “Me” are highlighted to make his point.

“Embrya” though is still smooth. It still has tracks that follow the mold of the debut album but the whole presentation of the set from it’s song titles which was words all put together and the front cover which is Maxwell in an underwater scenario sees it all given to the listener in way which says that you are not just listening to a piece of music, you are to become part of it.

That sounds a tad pretentious and in a way the whole project is. Maxwell would probabaly admit that this album was for himself. The subsequent albums were more of the style you would have expected him to produce but with “Embrya” he was was able to do something that gives us a taste of what alternative R&B can give. Many have tried to do something like this over the last few years (Miguel for one) but have never been able to capture the essence and profundity of “Embrya”.

Ultimately though every music album comes down to the same question – are the songs any good?

“Everwanting: To Want You To Want” like many of the song titles is slighty ostentatious but the song itself opens with a big bassy groove that sets a much darker atmosphere than on anything he did on his first album. It is a track I like though it goes on for far too long and melts into the background. Whilst there are elements of the track I like it is hard to stay focused throughout it’s overly long time.

“I’m You: You Are Me And We Are You” is not going to help you if you haven’t been able to stomach the over the top nature of the whole set thus far. It’s a song that is so oblivious of it’s waning sincerity that you can almost feel a reaction of hate.

Again it is groove laden as Maxwell sings the first verse in Spanish and then repeats the verse in English soon after.

“Luxury: Cococure” is the third track and was the lead single off “Embrya”. It is a cool and breezy laid back track which is typical in the style Maxwell has developed. I honestly always liked this song and the baseline and ad lib from Maxwell always grabbed my attention. It’s one of those late night songs to the point that playing it in the day light would seem utterly ridiculous.

Whilst this album doesn’t have many songs that people say “classic Maxwell” it does have a few tracks that have slipped so far under the radar i’m not sure Maxwell would ever think about doing them live. In fact Maxwell never does anything from this album (certainly not in the last decade).

But track 4 is for me one of the best songs Maxwell has ever created. “Downdeep: Hula” is just an utterly gorgeous track. It’s a simple song in it’s production but Maxwell’s vocal is quite sumptuous.

The lyrical content sees Maxwell drift away seemingly into another world as the song is so inaccessible to the masses and it is difficult to find anything to relate to. But regardless I think it’s a wonderful track and would love to ask Maxwell about the song, it’s meaning, and how it came about.

“Matrimony: Maybe You” probably could have featured on “Urban Hang Suite”. In fact it’s probably the only track that sounds like the Maxwell that we heard on that album. It is lyrically easy to follow as it is quite derivative. Maxwell is talking to a girl about perhaps getting married.

Teach me ’bout me
Tell me what you thought
I thought, you thought, I thought
Use me, drain me
Of all the things you want
You know girl can’t be bought

Maybe there is more to the lyrics and that the whole concept of Matrimony is just a dream for Maxwell who whilst he likes the idea knows that getting wed is not something he is in a position to do.

The song seamlessly goes into track the following track “Arroz Con Pollo” which you can be forgiven for not realising you have actually moved into another track as it essentially is the same music that was in “Matrimony”. It’s just an instrumental which you are waiting to end.

“Know These Things: Shouldn’t You” is a musically minimlistic and dramatic song which Maxwell sings entirely in falsetto. The song is about a partner who is able to hurt him with the things she has learnt during their time together. The song questions commitment and letting someone know everything about you as if you are to break up they could easily use this against you. .

“Submerge: Til We Become The Sun” is a slightly vomit educing title. It’s again quite a simple instrumental in the background as Maxwell does all the hard work with his vocal. The song really sees him drift into a an overthinking state of mind as he seems to be trying to connect on a ethereal level with this person. This song has no real value of normal life and it is going to be a track you either connect with or find utterly bizarre.

“Gravity: Push to Pull” is possibly the deepest song on a set which has been full of songs that are pushing the boundaries of normality. This track is Maxwell attempting to seduce this person but his seduction is something he cannot stop. Much like Gravity the pull towards this person is too great to fight.

There are a few interpretations you could take from the lyrics of this song. There seems to be an elusive nature of his character that is looking for something he just can’t seem to grab.

The final full track on the album is “Eachhoureachsecondeachminuteeachdayofmylife”.  Yes that is the title and how it appears on the album.

This track is the only song on this project that sounds like a real “R&B” piece. This would be likely to appear to those who liked the slow numbers on his debut album. This song is about love but it’s also sexy at the same time. The way he does the high and low portions of his own backing vocals is perfect. I actually think this is Maxwell saying that he could do standard 90’s R&B music standing on his head and here is the example.

The final moment of the album is the title track “Embrya”. The word itself doesn’t actually have a real meaning. This isn’t even a song but a mixture of sounds as if someone is playing a song backward. It’s odd, a little pointless and has no real value.

So then – Embrya. You will leave this album thinking a few things.

You may ask what the hell you just listened to and where was Maxwell from his first album.

But you may think like me that what he has given us was very deliberate, perhaps a little bit too much so that the organic nature of what he wanted to create was never reached because he tried so hard to do it.

I like a number of the songs on the album and whilst some can disappear into the background due to their long running times there are portions of this album which are wonderful. But it never feels totally complete and the fact that Maxwell never touches on this whole idea ever again leads me to believe either he never really wanted to do something like Embrya but thought he should to try and artificially create some sort of artistic credibility that he didn’t think he could have by being just an “R&B” singer or this was it and he was done trying to show the world what he was really thinking.

Still, a fascinating listen and something that makes Maxwell all the more interesting.

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