NAO is back with her second album Saturn, after releasing her debut album For All We Know in 2016. This record explores the unstable period of the singer’s late twenties, ranging from reflections on past relationships to new passion and growth.
The sophomore album starts out with a powerful, almost gut-wrenching ballad describing the end of a long-term relationship that did not necessarily end on bad terms, but a conflict nonetheless. “Another Lifetime” depicts a personal reflection upon the singer’s past relationship and through her vocals and lyrics, you can physically feel this pain as she tries to find closure from this relationship. The track lends to the listener the sense of a new beginning as the singer comes to terms with the end of the relationship. This level of personal vulnerability with which NAO opens the album sets the tone for the following tracks.
NAO and SiR‘s vocals combine in a gorgeous harmony in “Make It Out Alive.” The bouncy melody juxtaposes the lyrics, which venture to ask a dangerously deep question: how do you make it out of here? This record manifests as a reaction as well as a reflection to the changes that the singer faced in her late twenties—described as a “state of flux,” we see the inner turmoil of the artist experiencing shifts in relationships and work life and family. This track embodies the feeling of falling too deep into a situation and finding yourself at the bottom, trying to find a way out. The repetition within the chorus emphasises a feeling of despair and a desire to find a solution, a way out.
The interlude, “When Saturn Returns,” explains the title of the album; the planet’s shift is an astrological episode that happens when Saturn returns to the same position it occupied relative to your birth. This rotation occurs after 29 or 30 years. Quite an appropriate title for the album, as the East London-based singer just hit 30 last year. The sentiment that accompanies this astrological episode is, as the voice on the track states, to let go of what does not serve you, whether that involves relationships, jobs or any past regrets. The voice is layered over beautiful strings, which makes this such an indulgent interlude.
“Gabriel” really embodies the ‘wonky funk’ term that NAO has coined for herself. The upbeat melody paired with her vocals and the constant bass guitar guarantee a funky, catchy track. Mura Masa first teased this track back in January during his residency on BBC Radio 1, and after finally hearing the full song, it was well worth the wait. The bridge in this track reveals a rich, lower register from NAO that we don’t get to hear as often, which adds a completely new dimension to the track.
Going back to the astrological theme with “Orbit,” NAO slows it down with the heavy R&B track. The singer offers a melancholic narrative about being let go, with the repeated line “he released me into orbit.” The futuristic melody combined with the violin and strings create a sense of unsteadiness that one could feel after a breakup.
A tactic I’ve recently found myself doing with albums that deal with heavy, personal topics is to find the ‘happiest’ song. Whether it’s the track with the most upbeat tempo or cute lyrics, I tend to gravitate to that first and set it as an emotional anchor before diving into the deep stuff. “Love Supreme” is my anchor on this record. The sole guitar at the beginning transforms into an infectious beat and carefree lyrics. Placing this track directly after “Orbit” highlights the contrast in both melodies and messages of both songs. This track can almost be described as seeing the light at the end of a tunnel; after the tumultuous period that NAO has reflected upon, she offers a message of hope in the outro. That funky guitar riff at the end is pretty great, too.
All in all, Saturn displays NAO’s expert wielding of pop and R&B to create her own ‘wonky funk.’ The beautiful melodies transition seamlessly into one another, creating for the listener a sense of floating through the singer’s past as the lyrics offer a reflection on the narrated experiences.
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