Seeing Sounds is a monstrous effort that is nothing short of a full-fledged exercise in masterful pop musicianship, soul and rhythm. It is a smart and mature addition to N.E.R.D.’s catalog and résumé which is already replete with brilliant efforts and genre-less compositions.
For all its brilliance, however, Seeing Sounds does have a bit of a bumpy start. After a brief monologue by Pharrell, the record eases into the plodding and funky strut of “Time for Some Action”. The supercharged lead single, “Everyone Nose”, follows suggesting the record might be gaining some veritable momentum. However, by the time “Windows” finally drags to its conclusion, one has to wonder why Pharrell and Co. decided to halfheartedly play in the same pool as Gnarls Barkley. The album’s mulligan, “Anti Matter”, with its obnoxiously profane hook and faux guitar fuzz, further clouds this glorious effort. It is not until the most accomplished drum-n-bass-influenced track on the album, “Spaz”, freewheels its way through the speakers that the album’s pace, groove and attitude are fully underway. … and from there, it’s on…
The most distinct musical characteristics that set Seeing Sounds apart from N.E.R.D’s dazzling discography (and the rest of pop music, for that matter) can be found in the rhythm section — particularly the bass and the drums. An upright bass hasn’t been this cleverly and creatively employed since Tribe’s Low End Theory. On “Everyone Nose”, it’s used percussively as if programmed on a drum machine; on “Yeah You”, it dictates the groove and flavor. Drums are always a mainstay in any N.E.R.D. (or Neptunes) production. Only here, the polyrhythmic and frenetic drums sound more like the early drum-n-bass/jungle stylings of 4hero than anything on In Search Of… or Fly Or Die.
Pharrell handles the lion’s share of the songwriting this time around and it shows. The songs and melodies on Seeing Sounds hint at groups and genres that have tremendously influenced him. The harmonies on “Sooner or Later” are reminiscent of Steely Dan, only Pharrell adds a sneering break beat as well as a spellbinding and apocalyptic guitar solo. The drastically abrupt yet creative bridges on “Everyone Nose” and “Spaz” hark back to the musicianship (scaled down, of course) of Queen songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Innuendo” that were really a two-fer. The soulfulness and groove of “Yeah You” and “Kill Joy” are culled straight from MJ in his prime, except Pharrell is able to put his own signature on them with some creative drums and his own (albeit superficial and trite) lyrical stylings and themes. And if you are entering a N.E.R.D. album with expectations of lyrical brawn or John Lennon poetry, you’re gonna have to snap out of that delusion post-haste. The lyrical bar can only be set but so high for the man/group that ghostwrote Rex-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker”. This is not a hip hop album; it’s a “good music” album. It’s fun. It’s creative. It’s what we’ve come to expect from N.E.R.D. and Seeing Sounds is as logical a progression as a band can make. It’s almost scary to ponder what they’ll have in store their next time out.