By Greg Salter
I feel like the best way to think about Frank Ocean is as a storyteller – he’s said as much himself recently and this allows you to take in the shifts in tone and focus on Channel Orange as the album unfurls over its 55 minutes. The songs on this album sit somewhere between the personal and political and, with an empathy and insight rare in modern pop music, Ocean just allows his stories to unfold with a refreshing openness. Whether he’s recounting his own story or zoning in on the lives of others – rich and poor – his lyrics bear an astonishing attention to detail, a desire to engage with big questions, and a great deal of honesty.
With Channel Orange following in the wake of a public coming out of sorts (Ocean, in a post on his tumblr, revealed that his first love had been a man), it’s tempting to frame any discussion of the album in the context of that bold, brave, dignified move. That would do the music on this album something of a disservice – while three tracks do deal in some way with Ocean’s sexuality (and, in the case of the astonishingly beautiful ‘Bad Religion’, almost eclipse the rest of the album), the story of Channel Orange is much bigger than one of personal revelation. It’s worth remembering that Ocean’s tumblr note avoided labels – there was no “I’m gay” or “I’m bisexual” in there, only an implicit recognition of the fluctuating, complex, revelatory nature of sexuality. Thinking of Ocean’s note while listening to Channel Orange, I was reminded of Patti Smith’s liner notes in her debut album Horses – somewhere in there, the words ‘beyond gender’ stand out as Smith’s mantra, and this same refusal of definition and openness to the complexities of identity abound in Ocean’s music.
So Channel Orange is an album of characters, of which Ocean is only one – the sheer number of voices here can be disorienting at first, giving the effect (as he actually does in one of the interludes) of flicking through different TV channels, catching glimpses of different lives. There’s bored rich kids, prostitutes, drug dealers, and a migrant couple to name just a few, all brought to life through Ocean’s incredible voice, exhibiting a greater range than on last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra, with his conversational style making the melodies and words sound as if they’re falling out of his mouth for the first time (though this is clearly far from the case). The breadth of characters is reflected in the number of genres these songs embrace – from the smooth funk of ‘Monks’, the stately strings on ‘Bad Religion’, the epic R&B of ‘Pyramids’, the loose piano stabs of ‘Super Rich Kids’, the ‘70s soul of ‘Sweet Life’.
There are mis-steps – ‘Pilot Jones’ meanders just a little bit too much for instance, while ‘Fertiliser’ and ‘Sierra Leone’ disrupt the album’s early flow – but generally the strength and ambition of songwriting on display here is exceptionally strong. Early single ‘Pyramids’ remains a highlight, with no flab on its nearly ten-minute runtime, its synths lit up like gaudy neon signs and guitar lines licking sleazily underneath. ‘Sweet Life’ genuinely sounds like something Stevie Wonder may have slipped onto Innervisions, and the same could be said of the fractured R&B of ‘Crack Rock’. Meanwhile, Channel Orange’s closing suite of love songs – ‘Bad Religion’, ‘Pink Matter’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ – have a directness and emotional weight, along with occasional touches of humour, that make them the most affecting conclusion to any album for a long time. ‘Bad Religion’ in particular nails unrequited love beautifully and succinctly – it’s the greatest song he’s written in his still young career.
Another artist that came to mind for me as I listened and re-listened to Channel Orange this week was Joni Mitchell – I couldn’t help thinking about the way albums like Blue, For The Roses and, particularly, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns fused the personal and the political, weaving Mitchell’s own life in with those of her characters and stories. It feels like Frank Ocean works in a similar way, at least for the time being – both artists look into and beyond themselves, creating collections of songs that feel open, non-judgemental, careful, empowering. Channel Orange’s many voices, filtered through Ocean’s ambitious, skillful songwriting, make this album if not quite the masterpiece that some have claimed, then certainly a huge, flawed step forward, in terms of songwriting and in terms of understanding, through voices and stories that are all different – male, female, straight, gay – and all wonderfully human.