Pharrell Williams has a knack for turning "not much" into a little slice of dance-floor joy. "Happy," the first single from his new album, "G I R L" (Columbia), came out in connection with an animated movie, "Despicable Me 2," and it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a pop trifle. "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof," Williams exults.
It's tough to make feel-good feel substantial, and Williams doesn't overthink it. Yet, Stevie Wonder-like, he turns the slight-if-uplifting lyrics into something sublime by the way he orchestrates voices, instruments, even hands. Hand-claps become the song's rhythm section with their variations on the beat: steady, double time, syncopated. Williams' falsetto swerves through a cushiony choir, the layers of backing vocals becoming another percussion instrument alongside the hand-claps during the bridge. Underpinning it all is yet another layer of bounce, a bubbling bass line that only emphasizes the lightness, the hip-twitching sparkle of the party going on a floor above.
Williams' sense of making the most of the least is his signature as one of the more acclaimed producers of the last decade. Last year he re-emerged as an in-demand vocalist, thanks to his work on two inescapable singles: Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
Like those two songs, "Happy" and much of "G I R L" has a pronounced retro feel, echoing earlier styles and eras with acute attention to sonic detail and hooks. "Marilyn Monroe" opens with a flourish of Hans Zimmer-orchestrated strings and swings into a lithe disco track with chattering guitar that could have fit on Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall." Justin Timberlake joins for the ebullient, Latin-fired "Brand New," and "Hunter" turns a handful of ingredients, including the sound of heavy breathing, into a lean hip-shaker. With their chicken-scratch guitars, sharply etched melodies and upbeat tone, many tracks conflate the best moves from the classic R&B production factories of the '70s and '80s: Motown, Muscle Shoals, Paisley Park.
As telegraphed by its title, "G I R L" has pretty much one thing on its mind. But there's a lightness to its touch that doesn't so much suggest the intimacy of a bedroom or the sleaziness of a late-night tryst at a club, but rather balloons in the park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Even the relatively dense production of the string-heavy "Gust of Wind," with guest vocals from the Daft Punk robots, feels breezy.
Williams tries to burrow a little deeper as the album winds down, and slows the pace. In "I Know Who You Are," a duet with Alicia Keys, Williams professes over a reggae beat his empathy for a lover.
Only on the two-part "Lost Queen," about a seductive alien, does he veer into some of the more off-kilter terrain he explored in his long-lost group N.E.R.D. "You gotta go inward to experience the after space that was built for you," Williams sings over sandpapery percussion. After the sound of ocean waves announces the next chapter in the tale, there's this: "I'd rather be a freak than not be unique, the individuality makes life better."
But for most of "G I R L," the singer reins in his freakier side for something more accessible, a logical, frothy if somewhat risk-averse follow-up to last summer's chart-topping singles.
'G I R L'
3 (out of 4) starsCopyright © 2015, RedEye