Finding an American equivalent to the Colombian pop star Juanes is nearly impossible. He is a consummate love-song singer, but he made his name with a single about landmines ("Fijate Bien"). He cut his teeth on Zeppelin but his music draws much of its propulsion from vallenato, the Afro-Colombian cousin to cumbia that has its home on Colombia's north coast. He's political; he's romantic. He's sort of Trace Adkins, Taylor Swift and Boots Riley rolled up into one. And he makes great pop music.
But is his new album, P.A.R.C.E., great? His fans might not think so. When he debuted the lead single, "Yerbatero," during the World Cup opening concert earlier this year, it was met with a resounding yawn. He even looked a little nervous playing it. And it never reached the top of the Billboard charts, which is nearly unheard-of for a Juanes single. ("Y No Regresas," the subsequent single, has fared better.) He's messing with the formula that's made him such a reliable chart presence why?
Partly it's a personal thing. An infidelity and subsequent return to his wife has left him chastened; he took a break from his usual producer Gustavo Santaolalla and went with Steve Lipson (Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox) clearly the act of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He also wanted to return to a more raw, rock-heavy sound. But I think his personal struggles are only half the story; there's a deeper movement afoot in Latin America right now. As the greed and speculation-driven northern economy continues to implode, leftist Latin American leaders who are putting much greater emphasis on social welfare than, say, the U.S. does are starting to look a lot better. There's some vindication for their efforts, for the rhetoric, flawed as it may be, of a leader like Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales. And that seems to be fueling a rising sense of pride across Latin America.
The resurgence of Latin American pride is showing up in the music. Ruben Albarran, the charismatic, diminutive lead singer of Mexico's Cafe Tacuba, has a new project called Hoppo that plays, in part, classic Latin American songs like "La Llorona" and Mercedes Sosa's "Gracias a La Vida" hardly an obvious choice for a dyed-in-the-wool alternative icon. One of the best songs on the new Calle 13 album features three iconic Latin American singers, simple folkloric music (again, rare in hip-hop), and lyrics that attack the crass materialism of the north. Even in Argentina, an extremely European country, the label/club night ZZK features artists who are using Latin American styles like cumbia and obscure Argentinean folk as building blocks for their techno explorations. Imitation is out; Latin pride is in.
In this context, the seemingly anomalous P.A.R.C.E. begins to make sense. The album's very name is hyper-local it's Medellin slang for "buddy" or "dude." And "Yerbatero" is actually a song written about the traveling herbalists who would sell remedies in small Colombian towns like the one Juanes grew up in for everything from illness to falling into or out of love. Listen to Latin pop radio for about 30 seconds and you'll know this is hardly ordinary fare for a pop singer. Another song on the album, "Segovia," actually details a massacre carried out by Colombian paramilitaries in 1988, and pays homage to the victims and survivors. The first song on the album, the arresting "Quimera," laments the world's short attention span when it comes to massive disasters like Haiti and goes on to assert the overarching importance of love. Juanes has always been political, but this is something else again.
The other major change on this album is how he treats love. For Juanes, love has usually meant romantic love, and he's made a ridiculously good living singing about it. But on P.A.R.C.E., love becomes a magical, morphing entity. In "Quimera," it is a political act, a force to counteract an ADHD-afflicted media, the thing that keeps people working to help others even when the cameras are gone. In "Amigos," it's personal but not romantic: the love of his friends that keeps him together as he navigates major personal-life storms. In "La Razon," it is, quite simply, the reason for living. Inspiring as it is, it doesn't always make for great music: "El Amor Lo Cura Todo" is a great sentiment, but the trickling soft rock didn't do much for this reviewer.
In the end, P.A.R.C.E. may not be Juanes' greatest achievement. Though he's clearly drawn to the rawness of rock, his natural talents have always been pretty well suited to the pop realm. But the rawness has given him some kind of permission he's taking chances lyrically, he's become increasingly political, and he's transforming himself from your ideal lover into a much more philosophical animal. This rock dalliance may be an aberration, or it may signal a new direction that he'll travel more surely in later albums. Whatever he's doing, we applaud it. It takes guts to mess with the recipe of your success and make something messy ... but new.