15th July, 1995
Strictly from the evidence of this travelogue, Juan Gabriel is a man of moods. He was introduced to us very early on as a singer of synth-pop mariachi; he said goodbye with an extended dance mix; he said hello again with a gospelly march; and now he's doubling down on the mariachi — or rather, on ranchera (mariachi is a specific form that generally includes charro costumes), digging into the 1940s and 50s and 60s heyday of classic Mexican music.
In a sense this is a culmination of all the backward-looking pop we've been seeing over the course of the past few years, from Gloria Estefan's exploration of Cuban traditionalism and Luis Miguel's homages to the greats of Latin music to exercises by Selena and Los Bukis in modernized classicism. Even though Juan Gabriel's visits to the top spot tend to be brief these days (this was only there for a week), he's still something of a key figure in Latin Pop, and his embrace of traditional ranchera music on El México Que Nos Se Fue ("the Mexico that left us," or rather, "that got away from us") is another confirmation that the mood of Latin Pop (as measured by US airplay, anyway) has changed considerably from where it was ten, or even five, years ago.
"El Palo" is a Gabriel original, but it sounds entirely traditional (except perhaps in the rapid-fire syllable-spitting at the end, which owes more to American funk and soul than the strict rhythm and ornate instrumentation suggest). A "palo" is a stick, and the repeated phrase which gives the song its title, "palo dado, ni Dios lo quita" is a variation on a Spanish-language proverb which means, roughly, "what's done is done" (lit. "stick given, neither does God remove it"). It's a scales-from-the-eyes end-of-relationship song, and if it's performed in a rather breathless rush as the guitars and guitarróns and vihuelas and harps propel us forward, while the glossy, feathery strings swirl above and around and the horns break in like spotlights to show the track, it's still an old pop theme, and an old romantic-poetry theme before that.
But if the instrumentation, the lyric, and the melodymaking are all traditional ranchera, Juan Gabriel's voice is not. He doesn't have the burnished tones of a Vicente Fernández or a Pedro Infante: his voice is high and thin and cracked (a bit like David Bowie's, in fact), and the sobbing wrench in his voice doesn't sound stylized in the traditional method of ranchera, but real. He's still unpredictable, even when writing and singing what might be the most predictable form of music there is. The signature sounds, harmonic structures, and cries (the grito mexicano, again!) of classic Mexican music are as immediately recognizable as any traditional music anywhere; the flexibility of the form is less noted by outside listeners, but Juan Gabriel makes it sound immediate even while sounding old.