Pop stars generally xerox other acts’ looks and hooks — it’s expedient, and it works. But Nelly Furtado’s multiplatinum 2000 album, Whoa, Nelly! (which included the loosey-goosey soul-folk hit ”I’m Like a Bird”), felt like an original. The Canadian’s debut was mass-market pop at its best: fluffy, giddy, uplifting, idiosyncratic. Folklore, her fine 2003 second CD, got artier, adding cameos by the Kronos Quartet and Brazil’s Caetano Veloso and exploring Furtado’s Portuguese roots. It tanked, comparatively, no doubt in part because Furtado had a kid that year, limiting her ability to tour and glad-hand radio programmers.
A high-pressure follow-up, Loose would seem exactly the comeback she deserves. It’s primarily a collaboration with hip-hop/R&B mastermind Timbaland, another original who parlayed a freewheeling aesthetic into major hits (Missy Elliott, Aaliyah). Unfortunately, the result is like a blind date where the chemistry doesn’t quite click.
Much of Furtado’s charm comes from her low-key, girlish sensuality. But Loose tries to amplify that into the cartoon hottie-ness that now defines pop divadom. Madonna blueprinted this and Gwen Stefani refined it on her Kewpie-funk masterwork Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Both acts are touchstones here, especially Stefani, who exudes a good-girl innocence even when she’s flouncing in fetish wear.
But when Furtado — who’s prone to self-esteem-boosting declarations like the ones on ”Afraid,” Loose‘s opener — demands you ”move your body around like a nympho” on the Hall and Oates-inspired ”Maneater,” you want to button up your shirt; where Stefani radiates fun, Furtado never quite inhabits her new sexpot persona. Surprisingly, Timbaland’s backdrops don’t help. His ultra-beefy yet slightly stiff synth-pop riffs echo ’80s acts like Depeche Mode and Eurythmics. They may be awesome on the dance floor, but one expects more than ’80s revivalism from Tim, and the tracks lack the polyglot flavor you want from a producer known for tabla samples and futuristic exotica.
That’s especially odd since Furtado is such a polyglot artist. In fact, the most striking songs are in Spanish: two versions of ”Te Busque” with Colombian pop heartthrob Juanes (who had a 2002 hit duet with Furtado), and ”No Hay Igual,” a reggaeton-style trifle that’s more fun than anything else on the record. The tossed-off-sounding final tracks also glimmer with invention. ”Wait for You” spins around a snake-charming snippet of Middle Eastern pop, and ”All Good Things” is a slapdash acoustic romp cowritten with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. These songs indeed feel ”loose” — more suited to an adventurous pop record than this overly calculated one.