During the 90s, the “Neo-Soul” movement hit the music scene, heralded by Erykah Badu's excellent album Baduizm. Likeminded artists followed in her footsteps – D'Angelo, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott, to name just a few. One such artist, Maxwell, earned critical acclaim with his semi-concept album Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, which chronicles a relationship from beginning to (presumably) happy ending.
When he released his follow-up studio album, Embrya, in 1998, fans were puzzled by its shift in tone – still romantic, but lyrically obtuse. Using unconventional instrumentation like ukuleles further hampered its accessibility. Virtually impossible to categorize, Embrya received little airplay, spawned only one single (“Luxury: Cococure”), and quickly faded from the music charts. Ten years later, the album deserves a second listen. While somewhat eccentric, Embrya remains incredibly romantic, unusual, and a hidden gem.
Like Urban Hang Suite, Embrya was intended as a concept album, although each of the songs can stand on its own. The best summarization of this concept is water: every song possesses a floating, drifting sound, as if the songs were recorded underwater. Sound unusual? Yes, but the beautiful chord changes and unusual arrangements make the sound possible. In fact, it resembles an album Marvin Gaye could have made if he combined the romanticism and sexuality of Let's Get It On with the cerebral qualities of What's Going On.
The titles of some songs seem somewhat pretentious — ”Everwanting: To Want You to Want” and “I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You (Pt. Me & You)” are two obvious examples — but look beyond them to hear some sensual Neo-Soul. “Drowndeep: Hula” uses the unlikely combination of soul and Hawaiian music, accompanied by Maxwell's delicate vocal, to create an almost otherworldly sound. “Gravity: Pushing to Pull” uses an unusual electronic sound to create a swaying beat.
If you prefer Maxwell's traditional sound, look no further than the track “Eachhoureachsecondeacheachminuteeachday: Of My Life.” The title is a mouthful, but Maxwell's falsetto vocals and midtempo soul grooves make this song resemble an Urban Hang Suite outtake.
“Matrimony: Maybe You” continues his fascination with commitment and old-fashioned romance. For those who enjoyed Maxwell's version of Kate Bush's “This Woman's Work” from the Unplugged EP, try “Know These Things: Shouldn't You,” featuring a sparse arrangement and Maxwell's lilting voice.
Perhaps one reason Embrya was overlooked was its unfortunate choice for lead single, “Luxury: Cococure,” a strange track which included abstract lyrics, a baffling title, and a weird video of Maxwell taking a bath while making faces. No wonder the album was misinterpreted as avant-garde or an unsuccessful experiment.
Another issue was its unclassifiable genre. Its mixture of soul, rock, world music, classical, and other influences prevented it from getting frequent airplay on R&B stations. After Embrya, Maxwell kept a low profile until 2001, when he released Now, a solid yet more conventional collection of Neo-Soul. How unfortunate that the Embrya experience clearly discouraged him from experimenting further with his sound.
Embrya may not be easily accessible due to its obtuse titles and vague concept album quality. Do not let those issues prevent you from giving this album a listen. In fact, several listens are required to appreciate the songs' multilayered, beautiful qualities. Just put on a pair of headphones, turn up the volume, and become lost in the sensual, romantic, and yes, watery world of Embrya.Powered by Sidelines