RCA • 2018

RCA • 2018

“How the hell am I supposed to feel?” British soul singer Nao asks on “Make It Out Alive” (featuring SiR), the standout second track of her sophomore full-length release, Saturn. It’s a fitting question on an album all about change and growth — a strong successor to her 2016 debut, For All We Know.

For All We Know was a fun introduction to Nao’s unique voice, which is at turns everything from bubblegum sweet to husky, then lush and low rolling up into a falsetto. That album’s tone was largely playful, even joyous on tracks like “Adore You,” “Girlfriend,” and “We Don’t Give A.” Although Nao is still clearly having fun on Saturn, particularly on the Afrobeat-influenced “Drive and Disconnect” and the funky bop “Gabriel,”  this time she’s taking listeners a bit deeper.

After all, the album is based on the astrological phenomenon of a Saturn Return — when the planet Saturn returns to the same spot in the sky that it occupied at the time of a person’s birth, typically around age 29. It’s a time of change, discovery, and often of letting go of the past. Nao goes all-in on this concept, opening the album with the line, “I hope you find your way,” and three initial tracks centered around a breakup. But is she talking to her ex, or herself? She’s letting go of not just a failed relationship; she’s moving away from her younger, less realized self.

While this whole cosmic concept could veer into dangerously cheeseball territory, Nao and her collaborators have the vocals to pull it off. Admittedly, lyrics on title track “Saturn” like “Your constellation circulating me/Like a Capricorn, you’re hard to release” could be a bit eye roll-inducing, but when they’re delivered by Nao and feature singer Kwabs — another Brit with a layered, dreamy voice — who cares? The love song, co-written by Daniel Caesar, has Nao at her sweetest and most confident when she coos, “Eventually you will proceed to give me what I need.”

That’s coming from a woman post-Saturn Return, no doubt. If you don’t hear the self-love in there, you were clearly too distracted by all the interstellar mentions. Don’t let those mentions deter you from falling for “Orbit,” my personal favorite on the album,  both for the song’s theme and the magic Nao executes with her voice. It’s a self-reflective ode about moving on from a love that no longer serves — “He released me into orbit/Still I found a way to navigate to you.” She even pulls off a D’Angelo reference along the way (“You can give me the voodoo/Like D’Angelo said, ‘How does it, how does it feel?’”).

Saturn’s closing track, the orchestral “A Life Like This” also makes reference to another song — in this case, “Michicant,” a Bon Iver song. She performed it with Bon Iver at Coachella last year, and gushed that she was “blown away” by being asked, calling it a “career highlight.” (It was incredible — check it out.) She sings, “Michicant/Did you ever dream of a life like this?” and as with many other moments on Saturn, she’s talking to herself, reflecting. And again, that voice! When she sings, “I listened to you over and over again,” it is achingly beautiful.

Saturn is by no means a perfect album, especially if the cosmic metaphors aren’t flying in your orbit, but it’s a journey, and a hopeful one to navigate. Nao’s continued evolution will be one to watch.

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