27th August, 1994

He's back!

You might be forgiven for not immediately jumping to your feet with excitement, but instead wrinkling the brow and murmuring "who now?" After all, it's been more than six years since Juan Gabriel last made an appearance in this travelogue, and six years is an eternity in pop years.

At least that's usually what writers say; in truth, such gaps aren't as uncommon as the breathless hype about whatever comeback kid is in the news would have you believe. Anyone who's had a substantial pop career (that is, one spanning longer than a decade) has had fallow periods, especially as they get older and take longer breaks between albums, spend time with their families, and tour. The difference is that Juan Gabriel's fallow period was not (entirely) of his own choice; embroiled in a contractual dispute with BMG over publishing rights, he refused to write or record any new material until he got ownership of his songs. In 1994 a new contract was drawn up, and in 2000 all rights reverted to Gabriel. A happy ending, then; but while Gabriel's career will continue to flourish to the extent that he's slated for several more appearances as we journey into the future, he is no longer the force of nature he was in the 80s, having been leapfrogged by a generation of stars who were teenagers the last time he was in this position.

His 1988 swan song "Debo Hacerlo," was, if you remember, a profoundly strange song, sounding homemade and beat-boxy while still twisting uncomfortably through several different Latin strains, from flamenco to merengue. "Pero Que Necesidad," in contrast, is a comfortable pop song, with the rolling cadences of an old soul or gospel track. He uses some distancing vocal processing (rather like John Lennon in the 70s, in fact), and his sense of rhythm and structure is still highly idiosyncratic, but this is the second song in a row to earn a comparison to Billy Joel's "River of Dreams." Unlike John Secada, though, Gabriel is better than Joel; building on what could have been a schlocky foundation until the meter stretches out in florid designs.

It may go on too long, a few too many choruses perhaps than is strictly necessary to convey the idea of the song; I can practically hear Anglophone listeners muttering that they got it already. But after six years I don't suppose his fans begrudged him a victory lap or three; and like the gospel music he's referencing, the music swells continually, celebratorily, and we lose track of time. In gospel, this functions as foretaste of eternity; similarly, ecstatic modern dance music can have a related effect of abandon and self-forgetfulness. "Pero Que Necesidad" plods in a little too earthbound a fashion for that, I think, but the intent is there.

It's in writerly structure, not musical rush, that Gabriel approaches abandon: the chorus, two orderly lines followed by a babble of syllables spilling out in an upward swoop, is a masterstroke matching form to content. "Pero que necesidad/para que tanto problema," he sings ("but what need/for what big problem") — he's speaking in romantic generalities, but anyone who had paid attention would know exactly what big problem he's dismissing — "no hay como la libertad de ser, de estar, de ir, de amar, de hacer, de hablar, de andar así sin penas" ("there's nothing like the freedom to be, to exist, to go, to love, to make, to talk, to walk this way without pain").

He's exulting, and properly so; but the second half of the chorus extends the exultation generously to his audience: "Pero que necesidad/para que tanto problema/mientras yo le quiero ver feliz, cantar, bailar, reir, soñar, sentir, volar, ellos le frenan." ("But what need/for what big problem/in the meantime I want to see you happy, singing, dancing, laughing, dreaming, feeling, flying, they will fade away.") It's a song of triumph, even though the verses couch it in a romantic lament, explaining that he wants the best for his nameless auditor (who is even referred to in the third person, the sentiments so abstract) (or in the formal second person, which is even more unusual for a love song). But it's not the verses that stick in the head.

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