Frank Ocean, Blonde, album review: A trickling bubblebath of an album that ultimately runs lukewarm

Download this: White Ferrari; Ivy; Futura Free

Andy Gill
Wednesday 24 August 2016 16:12 BST

Not being a fully paid-up member of the Frank Ocean fan club, the protracted promotional build-up surrounding Blond/Blonde – the plethora of postponements, the pop-up shops, the magazine, the “visual album” Endless, the leaked roster of guests – failed to excite in me a lather of anticipation; and frankly, the album itself bears out my relative disinterest.

Less structured and song-oriented than Channel Orange, it’s a long, meandering ramble through Ocean’s passing interests and attitudes, hopes and memories, alighted upon like scenes briefly glimpsed from a train window and then dropped into tracks that aren’t so much sung as delivered in an undulating sprechstimme that seems to be avoiding the difficult choice of a compelling melody.

Consequently, one track bleeds languidly into another, as if we’re listening to a long, stoned stream-of-consciousness largely comprised of memories of childhood and romantic liaisons, establishing Ocean’s development as a bisexual outsider. As he acknowledges over the trickling bubblebath of electric piano in “Seigfried” [sic], “I couldn’t gauge your fears, I can’t relate to my peers”.

Virtually the only time the album comes to life is when OutKast’s Andre 3000 bursts through the torpid meniscus to deliver a brief but animated rap on the minute-long “Solo (Reprise)”. Elsewhere, guests are half-hidden, whether it’s Beyonce cooing wordlessly on “Pink + White”, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar scarifying a deconstructed take on “Close To You”, or the various backroom contributions of Pharrell, Tyler The Creator, Jamie xx and James Blake – although the latter’s aesthetic fingerprints are all over the album’s glitchy, miasmic R&B style.

“Nikes” opens the album with Ocean delivering some of Blond/Blonde’s most affecting lines – “I may be younger, but I’ll look after you/I’m not in love, but I’ll make love to you” – in a heavily autotuned vocal that makes a cartoon of the emotions; thereafter, the album drifts between flanged, shoegazey guitar figures and noodling keyboard textures with little sense of overt purpose or engagement.

When a potent melody does emerge, as in “White Ferrari”, it turns out to belong to The Beatles’ “Here, There And Everywhere”, the most specific instance of Ocean’s claim that they and The Beach Boys are two of the biggest influences behind this album. And while there’s certainly a parallel between his ruminations here and Brian Wilson’s hymns to adolescent uncertainty, I’d take Pet Sounds any day.

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