This time, Robin Thicke didn't want to be just the hopeless romantic who's lost in love inside his head.
On his new album, Something Else, the R&B-pop; singer-songwriter doesn't exactly abandon the yearning balladry that catapulted him to the top of the charts. But passion and desire aren't the only things on his mind.
"It's not all about romance. Really, my last album wasn't all about romance," says Thicke, who will make an in-store appearance at the Sound Garden in Fells Point on Saturday. "Most of the songs have been about the evolution of the human being. It's the man-in-the-mirror type of [stuff]. I'm not just talking about me now."
His last album, 2006's The Evolution of Robin Thicke, went platinum thanks to the No. 1 smash "Lost Without U." The tender ballad floated on a sexy, swaying melody, caressed by Thicke's delicate falsetto. The song was a refreshing throwback to the heart-on-a-silver-platter ballads of vintage Smokey Robinson and El DeBarge. The sapphire-eyed son of '80s sitcom star Alan Thicke and singer-actress Gloria Loring, the singer became an unlikely soul sensation. He toured behind the album for well over a year, supporting the ubiquitous Beyonce on her last tour.
But for Something Else, which was released Tuesday, Thicke wanted to reveal different sides of his musical persona.
"After talking about self-reflection for two years, it was time to talk about, well, something else," says the performer, 31, last week from New York. "I wanted to get more into what's going on in the world now - the economy, Barack Obama, the need for hope and change."
Something Else isn't exactly a political record a la Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Like its predecessor, style often trumps substance. Thicke's sound is always smooth, polished and glittered with a few quirks. Romance remains his lyrical anchor, but the singer approaches it from different angles this time. For instance, he uses a stark, bluesy backdrop for "Dreamworld." In it, Thicke makes a direct reference to his interracial marriage with actress Paula Patton: There would be no black or white/The world would treat my wife right/We could walk down in Mississippi and no one would look at us twice.
On "Sidestep," which rides a groove reminiscent of Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs, he sings in a slightly affected rasp about a woman dismissing his heart. Anger seethes over the buoyant rhythm, making the song a standout. Thicke uses a natural tenor on other sharp cuts, including "Magic," which boasts a flashy string and horn arrangement.
"It was time to roughen it up a little, show that I'm a man," Thicke says, chuckling.
Throughout the new CD, the Los Angeles native eschews programmed instrumentation, opting for live horns, strings, percussion and vintage keyboards.
"There really wasn't a specific direction this time," Thicke says. "I wanted more live instruments, though. I'm a fan of imperfection. Art should be imperfect, because life is imperfect."
Six years ago, it seemed the singer was on the verge of fading into pop oblivion. At the time, he went by just his last name and sported an unshaven look and straggly hair. He generated some buzz with his 2002 debut single, "When I Get You Alone." The song, which generously sampled the Walter Murphy's disco classic "A Fifth of Beethoven," was a much bigger hit overseas than in the United States, where it received moderate play on urban and pop stations. The video, however, garnered frequent spins on MTV and BET. But it still wasn't enough to boost sales of Thicke's debut CD, 2003's A Beautiful World, which flopped.
But Pharrell Williams, the focal point of the experimental group N.E.R.D. and half of the hit production duo the Neptunes, was a fan. He signed Thicke to his Star Trak label, an imprint of Interscope Records. Once there, the singer changed his image: He shaved, cut his hair and sported preppy sweaters and ties. The look matched the suave but crisp blue-eyed soul of The Evolution of Robin Thicke.
"My influences are kinda everywhere, man," the singer-songwriter says. "My mother's a singer, and she really nurtured my love for music. She played Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston [and] Aretha around the house. My dad was into Bruce Springsteen and Gordon Lightfoot, and I was into NWA and gospel - a little bit of everything."
His albums, especially Something Else, adhere to a traditional soul sound imbued with memorable melodies and laidback rhythms. But Thicke doesn't want to pigeonhole himself. He hopes to color outside the lines more in his music.
He says, "Man, I'd like to do everything before it's all said and done - anything that promotes love and healing."
IF YOU GO
See Robin Thicke at the Sound Garden, 1616 Thames St., at noon Saturday. Call 410-563-9011.
Smashing Pumpkins DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Nov. 11-12. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Black Crowes The 9:30 Club in Washington, Oct. 23-25. 800-955-5566 or tickets.com.
Mark Broussard Rams Head Live on Nov. 13. 410-244-1131 or ramsheadlive.com.
Lisa Lampanelli Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Nov. 14. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Bob Weir & RatDog Warner Theatre in Washington, Nov. 5-6. Also, Brian Wilson is there Nov. 18. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. tomorrow. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Buckethead Recher Theatre in Towson on Oct. 10. 410-337-7210, 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Aretha Franklin DAR Constitution Hall in Washington on Oct. 22. 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.
Chuck Mangione Rams Head in Annapolis on Oct. 26. 410-268-4545 or ramsheadtavern.com.
Shawn Colvin The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 10. 703-549-7500 or birchmere.com.
Nathan M. Pitts