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Album review: Pharrell Williams – GIRLS

Even when rushed, Pharrell cannot help but ooze an effortless, idiosyncratic cool.

Pharrell Williams performs at the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dan Anderson / EPA. February 16, 2014
Pharrell Williams performs at the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dan Anderson / EPA. February 16, 2014

Pharrell Williams

GIRL

(Columbia)

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Other superstars must marvel at Pharrell Williams’s serene progress through pop’s treacherous seas. Perhaps it’s the angelic voice, or that ageless charm, but potential hazards always seem to glide safely past.

Take the controversial video for the Robin Thicke collaboration Blurred Lines (2013). While Thicke became a media target, Williams went on to score a mainstream family film, Despicable Me 2, from which came another phenomenal hit, Happy.

Indeed, factor in his Daft Punk link-up, Get Lucky, and you get arguably the three biggest songs of the past 12 months: quite a feat. Hence this second solo album, the belated follow-up to his forgotten 2006 debut, In My Mind (a rare Pharrell flop).

Columbia greenlighted GIRL after Get Lucky’s success and its sudden, hype-free emergence does suggest a timely cash-in. And yes, some of it is clearly filler: the drearily undistinguished Hunter and Gush. But even when rushed, Williams cannot help but ooze an effortless, idiosyncratic cool.

Positivity certainly resonates from this record. The ever-boyish singer and producer actually turned 40 during that Blurred Lines furore and GIRL is a public bid to move on from such leery, lady-chasing lyrics. Some intriguing female guests lend a hand.

The most passionate feminist message is offered by an impressive Alicia Keys, vowing not to rest until “every woman on the Earth is free” during Know Who You Are’s likeably laid-back dub (relaxed reggae is this record’s default setting). The clap-happy Come Get it Bae boasts a suitably sassy verse from another contentious Thicke associate, Miley Cyrus, while the catchy opener, Marilyn Monroe, includes a curious spoken bit from Kelly ­Osbourne.

That track was co-written by the violinist Ann Marie Calhoun and the album’s best moments are invariably abetted by dramatic strings. These were arranged by Hollywood’s hottest composer, Hans Zimmer, to particularly thrilling effect on the orchestral disco thumper Gust of Wind, which also boasts robotic backing vocals from Daft Punk. Tinny horns propel the vibrant Brand New, meanwhile, featuring Justin Timberlake and Timbaland on vocals and beatboxing respectively. Experimentation was clearly encouraged.

True, the perfectly formed Happy far outshines anything else here, but then the movie producers did apparently demand exhaustive reworks. Such constraints would surely have scuppered GIRL’s most eccentric track, the admirable Lost Queen, an eight-minute epic that shifts from slightly dull balladry to psychedelic space-jam, via a minute-long interlude of sea sounds.

That song rather sums this record up: flawed, idea-filled and, ultimately, feel-good. Williams continues to ride a rich creative wave.

artslife@thenational.ae