Lambert vows to show fans his naked self, but ditching rock to overemphasize electronic dance production leaves his musical personality undetermined
Well, the upcoming movie adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” has its theme song, if it wants one. “Chokehold,” a provocative track from Adam Lambert’s second album, sounds tailor-made for the S&M occasion: “Sheets are in a knot … I kinda like the pain … I keep running away from you, but I can’t stop breaking the chains.”
Madam Ana, he’s Adam.
Lambert may play the submissive in “Chokehold,” but through the rest of “Trespassing,” he’s trying to assert himself in a way that he didn’t on his debut album. That first effort came out a little too soon after his second-place “American Idol” finish for comfort, so “Trespassing” is supposed to be the one where enough time was taken to show us the true Adam, as naked as his biblical namesake.
He goes some way toward fulfilling that ambition, but questions remain. Like: Wasn’t the Lambert who established himself as a glam-rocker on “Idol” at least partly the true Adam? And if so, why is this sophomore album so devoid of anything resembling rock 'n' roll, throwing that former musical identity over for electronic dance music?
Is shiny neo-disco getting closer to his core than rock ever could? Or is it just a tacit commercial acknowledgement that the audience for a gay icon is better found on dance floors than in rock arenas?
Outside the recording studio, Lambert hasn’t completely given up on rock. This summer, he’ll be doing five gigs in Europe as Freddy Mercury’s substitute in Queen. But “Trespassing” makes it seem as if all that was a handy flirtation more than fixation for a guy who can easily leave the Darkness behind to go stand in Dr. Luke’s light.
The result is a record that initially seems like it’s going to be the very definition of “a producer’s album,” even if Lambert’s robust chops are hardly in danger of ever being completely in slave to the engineer’s rhythm. The very precise bifurcation of “Trespassing” has the album starting off with seven breezy, boiler-plate dance-pop tracks before it finishes off with five somber and balladic numbers that make somewhat good on Lambert’s promise to get more personal.
The Pharrell Williams-produced opening title track does overtly invoke Queen — albeit not their power-chord early stuff, but “Another One Bites the Dust,” right down to a recurring discordant note that sounds like it might’ve been sampled from the original. It’s a clever bit of homage that gives Lambert a chance to get the Mercury rising and wail over a reasonably minimalist, bass-heavy, marching-band beat before the electronics really take over in the numbers to follow.
“Cuckoo” provides the album’s most pop radio-friendly hook — along with its most vapid lyrics, including an oft-repeated F-word that could pose a problem if someone does decide it should be a single. Funk fans will gravitate more toward “Shady,” which gives Nile Rodgers featured billing for a track-salvaging rhythm guitar part, even if the real star is Lambert’s own overdubbed choral vocals.
None of the EDM tracks go off the rails, though by the album’s halfway point it’s clear that Lambert is putting a healthy gloss on compositions that could have been weaved into any recent Britney album. He’s a male diva in a dance-pop world otherwise without any, and he can sing, so maybe these things are difference enough, but the sum of the lavishly produced parts is not quite enough for Lambert to maintain the popular belief that he has a personality.
Things take a turn for the more thoughtful with track eight, “Better Than I Know Myself,” the first single off the album (which, much to the panic and chagrin of Glamberts everywhere, was a commercial dud).
More than anything else here, “Underneath” is meant to be his mission statement. A simple piano opening precedes him ascending into his highest and most tender register as he plaintively complains: “Everybody wants to talk about a freak/Nobody wants to dig that deep…/You’re gonna see things that you might not want to see/It’s still not that easy for me underneath.” He finds “such a beautiful release, with you inside of me,” but that’s immediately followed by “a red river of screams.”
It’s potentially riveting stuff, undercut by an eventually all-synth backing that could just as easily be the musical bed for a particularly dramatic Celine Dion ballad.
After the aforementioned “Chokehold,” the standard edition of the album ends with “Outlaws of Love,” a track that couldn’t be better-timed to coincide with the peak (so far) of the gay marriage debates. “You say we’ll rot in hell/Well, I don’t think we will,” he sings, and if that line won’t go down with the greatest anti-homophobe rejoinders ever, he brings a beautifully tortured languor to lyrics about lovers who have “nowhere to grow old… always on the run.” It’s a song that might move you no matter where you live, but inspire even more of a chill if you happen to be in the humidity of North Carolina.
So how far into untold territory does “Trespassing” take us? Call it a tossup, since by the time it ends, we may feel like we know Lambert slightly better lyrically and a little less well musically.
It’s one thing to write a song about wanting to be known for your true self, and another to write a whole album’s worth of material that actually moves everyone toward that goal.