After spending most of his decade-long recording career as one of R&B's journeymen - a sensuous crooner with the occasional crossover hit - Thicke has exploded into pop's consciousness with "Blurred Lines": It's the undeniable song of the summer and may turn out to be the single of the year. The Marvin Gaye-inflected, sex-filled dance groove (and its naughty video counterpart) has become a cultural flashpoint, sparking parodies, commentaries, endless radio replays and an unknown number of hookups.
It's a triumph for Thicke, to be sure - but tricky part of having success is sustaining it. It's not something Thicke has managed that well through the years, particularly after scoring with 2007's smoldering "Lost Without U." Will "Blurred Lines" end up being a transcendent, but very singular moment for the 36-year-old singer?
If it does, it won't be because of his music. Thicke has always created cohesive albums that are remarkably underrated; with his sixth album being released as its title track continues on its path to world domination, Thicke may finally get the audience his songs deserve.
With 11 tracks, "Blurred Lines" is tightly woven but still manages to bring different flavors, from electronic dance music to R&B anthems to between-the-sheets grooves. Thicke wrote or co-wrote every track, and while he enlists Pharrell for "Blurred Lines" and has names like Dr. Luke and will.i.am as contributors, he remains the star of his own show.
Thicke charms throughout, whether he's using a sexy falsetto, smooth tenor or even a few raps, which he does fairly well on the retro-sounding "Top of the World" (showing he's learned something from those numerous Lil Wayne pairings). He even succeeds when his lyrics fail, like some cringe-worthy attempted come-ons on the disco-ball whirring electrobeat tune "Give It 2 U" (Kendrick Lamar does a much better job with his verses, thankfully).
Thicke usually does romance right, though, and it's where he shines on the album's best track, "4 the Rest of My Life," a gorgeous ode to the lady in his life that seems tailor-made for countless wedding first-dances (and honeymoon playlists). The song encapsulates everything that makes Thicke's music so alluring: sexy, perfect-pitch vocals, enticing lyrical foreplay and the music that delivers. With "Blurred Lines," Thicke's path to music's top spot should be clear from now on.
***** Backstreet Boys, "In a World Like This"
The Backstreet Boys managed to bring fifth member Kevin Richardson back into the fold for an eighth album and a world tour to celebrate 20 years of making music. "In a World Like This" is also the first to come out from under their own label, K-BAHN, after parting with longtime partner, the now defunct Jive Records.
The boys collaborate mostly with producers Martin Terefe and Morgan Taylor Reid on the 12-track album that lacks the immediate hooks that their earlier hits had. BSB's album is a grown-up mix of tunes talking about love and commitment, but the songs bleed into each other despite not being similar. The group is too concerned to show us how they've matured to remember that it's sexy vibes that sell.
"Breathe," ''Feels Like Home," ''Permanent Stain" and "Make Believe" are average, but they provide the much-needed key hooks for the dance floor. "Try" is too Eric Clapton-esque to stand out in this day and age, while acoustic downers "Madeleine" and "Trust Me" bring the sex appeal factor to a zero Kelvin (thankfully "Show 'Em (What You're Made Of)" rises the temperature for a bit).
The album's best moment is its first song: The Max Martin-produced lead single and title track has simple guitar chords that draw you in and a catchy, wholesome beat that keeps you tapping your feet.
But the rest of the album heads in one direction - downhill.
***** Glen Campbell, "See You There"
At 77 and stricken with Alzheimer's disease, Glen Campbell looks back at a lifetime of work on "See You There." He revisits classics such as "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" with a contemplative, late-night feel, stripping down to small-combo arrangements based on brushed rhythms, gently sustained organ notes and twangy, single-note, electric guitar.
The vocals mostly were recorded a few years ago, around the time Campbell recorded "Ghost on the Canvas," released in 2011. His voice is pure, strong and as soulful as ever, with only sporadic moments where his tone wavers. "Gentle on My Mind," for example, finds Campbell's voice sounding damp and slurred in places.
Overall, though, this is a testament that Campbell has remained a potent interpreter of good songs. Proof comes not only in how he hits the notes of a classic like "Hey Little One," but in the emotional layers he brings to songs written in recent years. In "What I Wouldn't Give" and "There's No Me . Without You" he acknowledges the melancholy of aging while assuring loved ones there is something better beyond this life for all of them.
***** Other new releases this week:
Chimaira, "Crown of Phantoms"
Earl Sweatshirt, "Doris"
Five Finger Death Punch, "The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell Volume 1"