With any pop artist, when you strip everything away, a singular question remains: ‘why should I care?’ All the great artists know this, and even when singing through the most banal platitudes, they find a way to make you care. About their story. About their life.
‘Mariam’, a previous release from Mooroo, set the template: an earwormy, sugary pop song with a big heart. The first half of the album continues on this blueprint with confidence and, even though Taimoor Salahuddin doesn’t do anything particularly new here, it’s the logical progression of his sound.
Take opener ‘Ronay Laga’, for instance. It’s a song of reassurance to a grieving and distant friend, where the upbeat guitar, plucking ukulele and beaming xylophone are beacons of optimism. And Mooroo’s advice is little more than ‘it’ll all be okay’, but he has a way with words here, giving every line the impression of a mantra. And it’s ultimately a song of comradely support – ‘ah kay meray saath baito, saaray dukh mujh ko batado – and one that’s so pure and sincere that it’s difficult not to immediately empathise with Mooroo. As the choir closes out the song, birdsong start to chirp in the background. It’s dawn.
The danger of this kind of pop music is that it risks tipping over into the saccharine: overly sentimental bullshit that is so soaked in syrup that it becomes impossible to swallow. But Mooroo manages to bypass this. Take the dangerously titled ‘Khwaboun Ki Rani’, for instance. The song is written in 3/4 time, as a waltz, and is essentially a fairytale story. Occasionally Salahuddin interrupts with small spoken word interludes – 6…6 bache hongay hamare – a line that would normally make you wince into the middle of next week. What stops us though, is that Salahuddin knows exactly what he’s doing. The sickly sweetness, the cheesy lyrics, the waltz time signature…it’s all engineered into an ode to love itself, the way that everything can seem so unreal. Mooroo asks us to leave our scepticism at the door, because there’s only sincerity here. I don’t think we should read ‘Khwaboun’ as an ironic song. Instead, it’s something much more interesting – a totally sincere love song in an age of endless cynicism.
‘Ma Ami’ is the other standout track here. Often pop artists feel the desperate need to ‘mature’ and move past the innocent image that has been constructed around them. ‘Ma Ami’ does this too, this maturation, but within the framework of an apology (of sorts) to his mother. In this structure, we still get the innocence that we expect, but one that’s tinged with some less wholesome affairs. Of course, these ‘transgressions’ are in some ways laughable: ‘bong hit kiya’ is a little bit too on the nose. But the list of failed online relationships is funny and engaging, and Salahuddin pulls of the raps with ease.
The second half of the album, though, is too tonally different for the album to feel cohesive. While ‘Naach’ is a fun dance anthem that draws from numerous sources (the horns always remind me momentarily of Wonder’s ‘Superstition’), it’s shallowness makes it difficult to revisit often. ‘Bohran’ and ‘Khatma’ are darker in tone, but the electronic glitch, synthesisers, and hard rock influences are too disparate to give us anything to hold on to. There’s plenty of ideas here, but the stretch from ‘Davinci at Grave’ to the end of ‘Khatma’ is confusing, restless and muddied. Salahuddin, determined to progress his sound, prioritises experimentation over cohesiveness.
Pehli is a particularly interesting debut album precisely because of this mashing of very different tones. While Mooroo solidifies his status as a leading pop musician, and further displays his knack for making infectious pop ballads, he also reveals a desire for experimentation and progression, to move beyond the confines of standard pop songs, and I’m excited to see which sonic avenues his sophomore effort will explore.