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Swamp Dogg - Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune Music Album Reviews

R&B’s weirdest—and most radical—weirdo modernizes his sound on an album that uses Auto-Tune to convey the ecstasies of love, the misery of loss, and the economic desperation of life in Trumpland.

If all Swamp Dogg was was weird, would we still care? The man born Jerry Williams Jr. found LSD and Frank Zappa in the late 1960s, and these discoveries prompted his transformation into R&B’s weirdest weirdo. He planted his freak flag on 1970’s ebulliently funky Total Destruction of Your Mind and the following year’s Rat On, with its indelible cover image of the Dogg happily riding a giant rodent. On more than 20 albums in 40 years, however, those eccentricities have led his music in fascinating directions—and they've accentuated rather than obscured his radical ideas about race, politics, and sex. His outrageousness has only intensified his outrage. The anger and despair and heartbreak and loneliness that underscore his songs have helped cement his status as one of pop’s great cult acts. As recently as 2014, he was railing against America’s history of racial oppression and erasure on an album titled The White Man Made Me Do It.

Now, he’s modernized his sound with an album called Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune. Rather than adopt the austerity of the soul revival, Swamp Dogg embraces this technology as something fresh and new, another tool he can use to get his point across and sound fabulous doing it. Producer Ryan Olson lends a hand, drawing more on his all-star ensemble Gayngs’ wiseacre R&B than on his band Poliça’s moody indie rock. Justin Vernon shows up with his Messina, a recently invented instrument that allows the singer to harmonize with himself in real time. There’s a string section. Someone named Viagra plays shakers. And everything is bathed in that sudsy wash of pitch correction.

The experiment succeeds because Swamp Dogg delivers on all three aspects of his album title: the ecstasies of love, the misery of loss, and the way Auto-Tune can be used to magnify those feelings. “I’ll Pretend” is a fairly straightforward soul number, with Swamp Dogg sing-speaking sentiments that are all the more affecting for being so mundane: “I’ll pretend you’ve gone on vacation, and you’ll be back in a week or maybe two.” The music is dank and slippery, with Texas blues legend Guitar Shorty noodling somewhere off in the distance, and the Auto-Tuned self-harmonies sound like the fevered inner monologue of a man so lonely he has to invent voices in his head just to have a little company.

The album works best when the technology evokes abject isolation. A cover of “Answer Me, My Love,” made famous by Nat King Cole in the ’50s, chops and screws an orchestra to punctuate Swamp Dogg’s appeal to a lost love, while a song actually titled “Lonely” warps a tight R&B combo of piano and sax as though it’s a bleary memory from the early ’60s. “You can make your mouth say you love me, but it don’t have to mean a thing,” Swamp Dogg declares on “$$$ Huntin’,” a song about unemployment. The words are slathered in Auto-Tune, but that only heightens the painful resonance of this Trumpland blues about hard times in America, a track both boisterous in its boasts and angry at how a bad economy forces you to prioritize money over love. “This is not a joke,” he testifies.

Despite the complexity and insight it offers in its lyrics, the jumbled rhythms on “$$$ Huntin’” trip up any groove the song might otherwise achieve. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune often loses its footing at moments like this, when the tempo picks up. “I’m Coming With Lovin’ on My Mind” will remind you that chillwave was spectacularly unfunky, and there’s nothing sexy about “Sex With Your Ex.” All that technology just gets in the way of what should’ve been a satin-sheeted slow jam, turning Swamp Dogg’s argument—that fucking is a legitimate and meaningful way of connecting with another human being—into a banal punchline.

The album concludes with what may be its most divisive track, a cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” The tune is older than 76-year-old Swamp Dogg himself, but in this version, the music sounds like a perverted Disney soundtrack, all shimmering starbursts, discordant strings, and gritty bass throbs. Yet Swamp Dogg sings it like it’s a stone R&B classic, rather than the stale standard presented on so many blah American Songbook albums. Carmichael recorded the song in 1927, when he was in his late 20s; here, it’s recast as a heavy-hearted, late-in-life reverie, the testimony of a man left only with memories. “Love is now the stardust of yesterday, the music of the years gone by,” Swamp Dogg sings. It’s an intriguing closing sentiment for an artist who has rarely sounded so rooted in the here and now.

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