Estudando o Pagode
f I itched, you’d scratch—why? Punch lines are important to us and symmetry is effective; resolution is satisfying because we can walk away without questions. Tom Zé is the guy in class who asks questions on principle. He’s an itch. You want to whittle your morals to daggers in light of his inspiring purity. You also want to punch him in the face.
He never belonged in the Tropicalia crowd; he’s six years older than flagbearers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and his music from that era is like sex with friends—it’s still pleasurable, but it doesn’t feel right. In 1973—a year after Veloso and Gil returned from exile in London and began the ascent to National Treasure status—he spit in his own soup with Todos os Olhos, beginning his most creative phase, self-flagellating in the marketplace, and nearly landing himself a job as a True Artist at his nephew’s gas station. David Byrne, who bought a copy of 1976’s near-perfect Estudando o Samba thinking it was a samba record, rescued him, and he has recorded on Byrne’s Luaka Bop label since the mid-90s. Estudando o Pagode may be his best post-70s album yet.
Zé’s 70s work is more comfortably set alongside post-punk. Ideals and methods: create something new by fragmenting, reshaping, and re-contextualizing the old. Pose critical questions through stylistic juxtaposition. Byrne was right when he thought that Estudando o Samba was a samba record—it is, just like PiL’s Metal Box or Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance are punk records, or like ABC’s Lexicon of Love is a romance album.
The operetta Estudando o Pagode, like all of Zé’s recent music, is samba running with ankle weights. Like any fun argument, it finds more glory in tension than release; lines of dissonance crisscross in fragmented syncopations, junk drum machine rhythms sputter in mud, the prettiest melodies get second-guessed with effects pedals until they lurch. Its funk is micro, knotted, and delightful—tickle torture; it doesn’t climax, it only strains. Well, with a wink. On the weepy, traditional-sounding bridge of “Vibração de Carne” (“Vibrations of the Flesh”), vocalist Luciana Paes de Barros bleats an orgasm so excruciating that it sounds like she’s giving birth. He volleyed all the songs off of two fifteen-year-olds while writing them—“Many times they recommended substituting melodies, noting when the theme would be difficult to sing at a party.” (Ha.)
The album’s title means “Studying the Pagode”—a samba variant from the Rio area whose appeal, not unlike a lot of contemporary hip-hop or emo, lies partially in sublimated machismo. Pagode’s narrative illustrates a history of female oppression through a series of disjointed vignettes, some factually bounded, some overtly bonkers. Conflicts between the poet and the journalist in Zé are a given, but like dada or post-punk, he’s always talking about something real in a very unreal way. While Byrne often sounds detached to the point of being preachy, Zé is tangled, but confident. And while the Portuguese lyrics are initially deterring, Zé and his parade of female leads are extremely expressive vocalists; his voice pinches in mischief, brays, and feigns sadness with a cynicism that could teach Scott Walker or Ghostface a thing or two.
At some point we accidentally ate garbage about how being romantic means abandoning reason; Zé’s music is critical like Susan Sontag’s writing—“critical intimacy.” Pagode will probably be the best love album of the year (and maybe one of the best, period) because Zé has always understood that you can explore feelings without just expressing them; he dismantles romance and samba because he cares about them, because he understands, and knows something that took John Lydon years to learn: resolution is for rock musicians, food chains, and suckers.