e learn over time to neglect our greatest living artists. Caught up in crushes and burgeoning lusts, we forget the ruddy glow of the hearth, the irreplaceable comfort that long-term companionship (wedlock?) with one artist can engender. They, en riposte, learn to neglect us just as much—to become as sparing with their gifts as we are with our reverence.
The story of Caetano Veloso is a familiar one: he went from political firebrand and exile in his youth to a Dylanesque figure of confrontation and rebellion, eventually maturing into a fully-realized artist delving into jazz, pop, and pan-ethnic sounds, and finally coming to dwell as a sort of musical demigod, comfortable and resigned to an art of re-interpreting his own classics and those of other cultures. Somewhere along the way, Veloso drifted from being a touchstone for young rebels to the kind of ossified, gentrified figure that they in turn strive against.
Cê is Caetano Veloso's 40th album—and the first in many years to make the hairs on the back of one's neck stand up. It’s impossible to say whether it's his recent breakup with Paula Lavigne, the presence of his son Moreno (himself a quite successful musician), or some other undetermined factor, but there's a thrilling looseness and economy here that has been absent from much of Veloso's years with Elektra Nonesuch. His last effort, A Foreign Sound, had its moments, but displayed the kind of mannered treatments that one could expect from an artist who rarely sings in English confronting some of the hallowed classics of the American Songbook.
Still using that generously soothing voice to great effect, Veloso shrugs off his tendency of late to constantly play the smoothie on Cê’s eleven originals. When he gifts us with his uncannily warm tone, you sense it's because he wants to—and for the majority of the album, he's playing with his voice in ways he'd seemingly all but forgotten. It’s something perhaps inspired by the tacit tribute that the album pays to Dylan, himself perpetually unafraid to stretch his own meager vocal gifts. The difference being that when Veloso cackles, undulates, or wails, it actually sounds pretty damn good.
The material here is spartan—"Waly Salomao" is little more than a constantly-writhing guitar and a lazy backbeat, with Caetano doing his best Tim Buckley over top. Opener "Outro" employs distortion and a skiffling beat, before dropping into the most somber and gorgeously aquatic of his songs here, "Minhas Lagrimas." Other tracks, such as "Homem" or "Odeio" play with the basic hip-swing of rock n' roll, but in a mesmerizing fashion that owes as much to the bossa nova as to Chuck Berry. More overt jazz structures are employed on "Nao Me Arrependo," a stunning showcase for one of Veloso's most yearning vocals, and closer "O Heroi" approaches the early Tom Zé sides in beatnik chic—a sassy, spoken-word employed over tense, stringent coffee-shop funk. Then Caetano shifts: first to the succulent tones that have endeared him to Americans who don't know their Portugese from their Pig Latin, next into a scraping, throaty scalpel-sharp wail that might be some long-lost Dervish chant—held, sustained, and then—boom. The record ends, and we're left relearning the same sense of wonder that first drew us to Transa, or songs like "Terra," or his early experiments with Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes.
Whether this newfound fire is but a random spark or the reemergence of the spirit of his daring early work, only time will tell. But for now even the possibility that one of the greatest living composers and performers—not just of Brazilian music, but of our time—may be returning from the sea of familiarity to pilot us once more towards unknown waters is the best news we've had in a long, long while.