I want to preface this by saying that tonight will be the first time I'll have ever listened to this album, and indeed, any Mary J Blige album. To my discredit, my knowledge of Blige and her output could easily be written on a postage stamp, leaving enough room for me to list my favourite Steely Dan songs, which happens to be all of them.
Review: First off, without even hearing a note, what is this horseshit cover art? A nice big picture of the artist, her name's nice and clear, and the album is called Stronger, fine. But what's this? On closer inspection there's a kind of subscript under the word 'stronger' seemingly designed solely for the benefit of amoebas or protozoic lifeforms, and it reads thusly - 'withEach Tear'. Thanks Blige - Stronger withEach Tear looks absolutely stupid and you've given me eye strain.
However - there's a sizeable portion of my album collection that features terrible cover art (mostly in the heavy metal genre) and I still dig the sounds, so let's judge this on the music. 'Tonight' starts off promisingly enough, with a grainy, pulsing Wu-Tang bassline overlain with a shimmering synthesizer borrowed from Fat Larry Band's 'Zoom'. I certainly like Blige's voice, and on this and subsequent track 'The One' it's manipulated with clever production to produce a range of interesting effects. Both are in a minor key and ride atop edgy, tricky beats, generating a skin-tightening tension that I really enjoyed.
It dips a bit on 'Said and Done', as a lubricious synth riff gives way to a fairly bland-sounding chorus; even so, the rather neat darkwave influences make it worthwhile. The next track is where everything turns to moose manure; 'Good Love' is an uptempo frothing fountain of piss, anchored by Club Tropicana brass and a guest verse from T.I. that did negative things to my I.Q. 'I Feel Good' can't be any worse, but it sounds like the Des'Ree / China Black collaboration that nobody asked for.
It becomes uncomfortably clear that on SwET, Blige is far more accomplished with the gritty, sultry or aggressive material than she is with the brighter, shinier gubbins. It's fair to say that the rest of the album plays out this way. Blige's voice is a thing of beauty, possessing clarity in full voice and a hint of bite when in declamatory mode. Her producers (and they are legion) have also used phasing and filtering effects intelligently; on 'I Luv U' for example, the combination is quite subtle, the mixture of natural and robotic voices turning the track into a tour-de-force of wind-tunnel techno-eroticism. It's the last truly great track on the album, but it's a cracker. Closing track 'I Can See In Color' comes close to greatness. Blige puts her full dynamic range on display out in front of the kind of downbeat heavy-lidded soul track that used to cook behind one of those characteristically gargantuan Isaac Hayes slow jams.
I can't say that I've become a fan of Mary J Blige since listening to SwET but I have become an admirer, albeit with qualifications. Blige is certainly a masterful singer, and with sympathetic material is absolutely capable of bashing out a masterpiece. The thing is, I don't know quite which direction would best serve Blige best. On the one hand, I'd love to hear a full album of her duking it out with Daft Punk in futuristic heaven; on the other hand, 'I Can See In Color' hints at the possibilities of Blige looking backwards and recording steamy, funky soul with the Swampers (or whatever their latter-day equivalent is) down at Muscle Shoals. With this much talent, it's perhaps hard to know which way to turn - which is also a reasonable summation of Stronger WithEach Tear (seriously, fuck this album title).