Pop songs are supposed to be simple. Sex, too. Neither ever really is. Few artists make this as abundantly clear as Van Hunt. His songs work your brain and your backside with equal vigor, spot-welding sophisticated melodies to an insistent groove and piling on lyrics that are as much about the consequences of intimacy and desire as celebrating bedroom action. Funky, sexy music isn’t supposed to be this challenging; it’s a lark, a diversion. Van Hunt’s Popular is that, and more.
Popular is Van Hunt’s most assured work yet, cutting the apron strings tethering him to his primary influences of Prince and Sly Stone. This isn’t to say that you won’t find elements of both artists – you still love your mother even after you leave home, after all. The difference is that he advances the sexy assemblage of funk, rock, soul and all styles in between that he established with his first two discs, Van Hunt and On The Jungle Floor; it feels more like something he owns.
“This record is all the way me,” he says. “Without a doubt, it’s certainly personal, in its sound, in its lyrics. I wouldn’t necessarily call it autobiographical, but it’s all about how I feel. Picasso said that art should disrupt, and it does that a bit.”
“This time my influences are completely different. I shut off everything from external sources: television, reading, radio, computer. It felt so good.” And that open mind found some new places to play. “I was listening to Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody,” he continues, “and I was impressed with his ability to put so many moods into one composition. One time through could have been enough to satisfy my craving for an experience, but just for the hell of it, I spun it again. This time I wasn’t hearing Hungarian Rhapsody. I heard Duke Ellington. I heard Brian Wilson. I heard R. Kelly! The man lived 200 years ago, and yet, he was far-reaching enough to inspire imitation from modern geniuses. ‘That’s a goal,’ I thought to myself. I sat down and wrote the music to ‘Bits & Pieces.’ If it sounds like anything else, it’s a problem that is beyond my ability to solve: I jumped into this with a sincere attempt at being free of influence.”
The resulting songs are satisfyingly Van Hunt even while taking fans to some new places. A song like, “Turn My TV On,” for example, could be indebted to Gang of Four, or just as easily to Rick James. There’s also a searing acoustic guitar track, “Ur a Monster, Parts 1 & 2,” and a couple feature the warm tinkling of vibraphones; “ ‘n the Southern Shade” is a lovely country soul reverie and “There's Never a g'time 2 Say g'bye” sets the finality of a relationship’s end amid piano and strings. “Lowest 1 of My Desires” slams its night-of-the-soul funk groove into grinding guitar and a throat-shredding plea.
“I knew that would spell out eclectic for some ears,” he explains. “To me, the songs sound real normal, there’s tension, there’s release – to me, that’s Songwriting 101. I’m still doing whatever the song is calling for. It kind of surprises me, but at the end they just tell me what they want to say and how they want to say it.”
Popular doesn’t have a concept or overarching theme, at least intentionally, but the title track hits on a leitmotif that surfaces throughout the record. “It is the desire to be accepted,” he says, “and the encounters along the way. And once you’ve gained acceptance, either with a lover, or your peers, or in terms of mass appeal, do you find satisfaction once you’re there? I don’t know—I don’t know the answer to that.”
“Popular” could apply to a kid struggling to get noticed in High School or anyone, really, who feels the modern affliction Van describes as “a pitiful need to be accepted,” but a rap from Count Bass D sharpens its focus at the close of the song with rhymes like “there’s a thin line between socialite and woman of the night.”
While this kind of insecurity recurs through different songs on Popular, don’t mistake this as a confessional concept album. First, that’s not how Van works. “Artists I admire, they always have a concept behind the record, but for me, I never have a concept. I guess that in itself could be a concept, but I called my mom this morning and I said, ‘Mom, I need a word for creating without a concept,’ and she said, ‘well I don’t know, but your music is an interruption to the status quo, I guess you could use that.’”
Second, Van Hunt, as you may have gathered from overt sexuality of his music, is not an insecure man. It’s a self-possession that extends to the recording studio, a confidence that makes complicated things seem simple. “For me, my satisfaction is through the work I do,” he says. “Once I feel fulfilled, I’m done. That’s the only measurement I use, honestly, because if there’s something I love, no one can tell me anything about it.”