His debut is still a stunner three decades later, and still the best Seal album
I still recall going into my local record store on May 20, 1991 and asking for Seal’s debut album on cassette. (It was Bloomington, IN’s Tracks, now sadly a T-shirt-dominant “spirit shop” with just a handful of records on its wall.)
The clerk asked how I’d heard of the then-new artist, and I’m not sure how I replied. I know I was familiar at the time with his collaboration with British house star Adamski, 1990’s UK #1 “Killer”; I assume I’d likely also come across his proper debut single, “Crazy,” as well, which had already been a hit in the UK. (“Crazy” hadn’t yet been released in the U.S.). What I knew was that I’d already found Seal so compelling that I had to have his first album, and of course this being long before not just streaming services but downloading, if a single caught your ear, and you thought you might want more, you plunked down your money for an album.
To this day, I’m glad I did.
VIDEO: Adamski feat. Seal “Killer”
His most distinctive production since Grace Jones’s Slave to the Rhythm in 1985, what Trevor Horn did with Seal and his batch of songs – four co-written with fellow debutante Guy Sigsworth (who’d go on to a long career working with everyone from Bomb the Bass and Björk to Madonna and Britney Spears; the less said about his stint in Frou Frou, the better), four penned solo, and a new take on his Adamski collaboration, “Killer” – was something else. This album soars, not just on its string arrangements (courtesy of Horn’s Art of Noise colleague Anne Dudley), but on the sense of uplift Horn gives it. Seal is a dramatic album, starting but by no means ending with his global smash “Crazy.”
VIDEO: Seal “Crazy”
Even though it sounds like pop today, for ‘90-’91, it’s a truly original-sounding single. His time with Adamski clearly rubbed off on Seal, because there are hints of acid house in the DNA of “Crazy,” lurking. Listen to that propulsive bassline. And the way Horn multitracks Seal’s vocals into a chorus is glorious. Not to mention that, on the album, the song works as a perfect bridge between the adult contemporary, string-soaked soul of “Deep Water” and Horn/Seal’s reworking of “Killer,” a song so striking it should be no shock that George Michael felt it worthy of covering.
VIDEO: George Michael “Killer/Papa Was A Rolling Stone”
My favorite moment on Seal might be the opening of side two (remember how albums used to be broken into sides?), specifically the first minute of “Future Love Paradise.” Seal sings the song’s first two words a capella, with Horn then building in elements slowly: synth chords, some effects, a keyboard melody, Seal singing his own harmonies, before another killer of a bassline drops in at 0:58, and everything heads up to the heavens. It’s such a striking way to open an album side – and I love that they held this for side two, rather than giving it away as side one’s start. “Paradise” goes through a couple of movements over its four-plus minutes, each precise and perfect on its own. Combined, it commits murder.
The song which does open the album, fittingly titled “The Beginning,” goes back earnestly to Seal’s acid house roots, perfect for a song whose chorus proclaims “The music takes you round and round and round and round/Hold onto love.” I mean, that’s the damn ethos of the second Summer of Love, innit?
VIDEO: Seal “The Beginning”
As the album wraps up, you can definitely hear signs of what Seal would become: “Show Me” and “Violet” (the former especially, with its shades of “Kiss From a Rose” to come) definitely show off his adult pop tendencies, and I wish he hadn’t embraced that side of himself so wholeheartedly. Part of what makes this debut such a success is its refusal to simply cop to radio-readiness.
At its best, Seal doesn’t sound quite like anything else, not that was surrounding it at the time and not even that came after. Which is precisely why it remains Seal’s best album.