Sunday, September 4, 2011

Caetano Veloso: Caetano Veloso (1968)

The year was 1968. Caetano Veloso, the self-fashioned enfant terrible of the Brazilian popular music scene, came bursting out of the blocks with this, his breathtakingly original--and still occasionally shocking--debut record.  The album was, in part, a middle finger to conservative listeners who insisted on insulating Brazilian music against incursions from the rock and psychedelia scenes that suddenly dominated America and Great Britain.  To that end, it succeeded marvelously: when he presented one of the album's crown jewels, "Alegria, Alegria," at the TV Festival in Rio de Janeiro, and later at the International Song Festival in São Paulo, he was booed so vigorously that he felt moved, in the latter performance, to deliver an impromptu (and now famous) speech scolding the audience for its intolerance.  And the newly-minted military dictatorship, nervous about what it perceived as Caetano Veloso's unrulinesss and flippancy, decided to imprison the young artist for four months in 1969--then exiled him for two years, a space he lived out in London, isolated and depressed.  Yet the album was also, equally as much, a love-letter to traditional Brazilian music; and this made its critics' complaints somewhat ironic.  Alongside the woozy, carnivalesque sounds inspired by the Beatles, Cream, and other contemporary acts, you can hear swathes of samba, afoxé, and, in the more delicate ballads (hell, in all Caetano's singing), echoes of João Gilberto.  Not for nothing does Caetano begin the first song, "Tropicalia," proclaiming, "Viva Bossa-sa-sa-sa!" amid chaotic, screeching violins, conga drums, and all manner of other raucousness.  The message was clear: he was wrenching Brazilian music into the present--into the future--even as he affirmed its most sacred and venerable origins.

A music, then, of brazen juxtapositions.  Caetano justifiably referred to his project as one of "musical cannibalism"--meaning, presumably, that he meant to devour most every kind of music he knew of, to filch whatever he could for his own ends.  Caetano Veloso comes off, accordingly, as a postmodern pastiche: the artist yanks various musical styles up by their roots and out of their native wild, planting them anew in a varied and exotic garden of his own making--one where the milky sounds of bossa nova could well exist side-by-side with sitar-music, organ, classical orchestra, snarling guitar.  In the rich and hospitable soil of Tropicalia (so this style came to be called, after the album's opening track, to Caetano's irritation), all was fair game.  The influence on Caetano Veloso of the Beatles, whose own albums had by this time come to sound like variety shows, practically goes without saying; and, indeed, the young artist, upstart crow that he was, conceived of his debut as a ploy to beat Sgt. Pepper's.  Whether he succeeded, you can of course decide for yourself.  What's certain, to this blogger anyway, is that Caetano was never as explosive, inspired, or arrestingly creative as here.  Though he would go on to build perhaps the most celebrated career in all of Brazilian music after the early 1960s, none of his succeeding albums--not Joia (exquisite but too safe), nor A Little More Blue, nor the overrated slice of self-indulgence that is Transa--matched this one in originality or sustained quality.  This was an extraordinary vision gifted to a young, iconoclastic badass, and it burned brightly and intensely enough to trigger a full-fledged music movement, Tropicalia, that lasted several years and left us with some of the most imaginative and daring records of the past fifty years.

Most everything that makes Caetano such a heavyweight is on display here: the knack for crafting melodies of such beauty and shorn purity you could almost gasp (and they often steal upon you suddenly, as in the lovely cascade at 0:48 of "Alegria, Alegria"); the delight at inhabiting border-regions (between genres, moods, even genders in some instances); and the ability to write lyrics that could almost stand alone as poetry, a talent that's earned him the epithet "the South American Bob Dylan."  (The similarities end with the lyrics.  Caetano routinely gets up to a level of harmonic sophistication that I don't think Dylan could even have dreamed of.)  For all the political hullabaloo that this record caused, its lyrics are surprisingly empty of commentary about the government; the dictatorship seems to have simply taken exception to the music's generally rebellious mood.  Rather, the poetry contained here is an exercise in surrealism, as in "Tropicalia" ("The monument has no door / The entry of an ancient street, narrow and crooked / And a smiling child in the knee, ugly and dead / Stretch out your hand"), and "Clarice," about a young boy's eerie confrontation with a mysterious, virginal figure ("I was afraid / Of the cold fear of ghosts / A body that did not show / Made of divination / The buttons always closed").  But when the songs succeed, as they usually do, they do so most of all on the strength of those otherworldly melodies; these are what carry tracks like "Clarice," "No dia em que vim-me embora," "Alegria, Alegria," and "Ave Maria" into your brain--into your body.  Only very occasionally does the album fail--"Superbacana" is an instance; so is the maddeningly repetitious "Soy loco por ti America"--and in such moments, thankfully rare, the songs come perilously close to sounding like throwaways from the soundtrack to Loveboat.

The record's greatest single offering will always be "Clarice," a song that distills, as if in capsule form, the zeitgeist of the late sixties.  In its wistful, cryptic, emotionally vulnerable mood--and, even more, its stunningly intricate construction--it really only has one peer from the same time period, and this is Brian Wilson's "Surf's Up," with which it's always twinned in my mind.  The song is a six-part suite resembling, in its careful architecture, a temple of some mystery religion, through whose several shadowy rooms we pass en route to its central chamber--at which point, on arriving, we become initiates, possessors of its obscure and hard-won knowledge.  Of what this knowledge consists, exactly, is likely irreducible to any verbal translation.  The best that can be said is that it moves and pleases us beyond articulation--and this pleasure, however incommunicable, may turn out to be the highest kind of knowledge.

Caetano Veloso (1968)

1. Tropicalia (3:40)
2. Clarice (5:30)
3. No dia em que vim-me embora (2:28)
4. Alegria, alegria (2:51)
5. Onde andaras (1:58)
6. Anunciação (2:02)
7. Superbacana (1:28)
8. Paisagem (2:39)
9. Clara (1:49)
10. Soy loco por ti America (3:46)
11. Ave Maria (2:22)
12. Eles (4:41)