In a pop landscape populated with singers who wield the kind of gob-smacking, roof-raising voices celebrated by TV shows like “The Voice,” Brazil’s Marisa Monte is a voice apart. On her latest, Portas, Marisa more than ever leans into creating music of quiet beauty – a pop star who declines to be ear-popping.
Her latest album shows her in gentle mode – more bossa nova sweet sophistication than street party samba. While the album ends with several vivid, upbeat songs, the album seems to be Monte’s balm for a Brazil and world that has been wracked by the covid pandemic. Following the album’s release last summer, Monte is heading out on tour, arriving in the US in March.
Before launching her stardom in Brazil in the late 1980s, Monte trained in the bel canto tradition of Italian opera and her subtle use of vocal textures and filigrees has been a hallmark of her singing. What has lifted her music even more has been her talent for surrounding her silky voice with varied, meticulously crafted soundscapes, landing her at the top of pop charts and critics’ best-of lists over the years.
Monte left Italy to return to Brazil to pursue a career singing Brazilian popular music, and gained notice with her eclectic live show, which was captured on her 1989 debut album MM. She continued to meld Brazilian and American elements, pulling in a team that included New York downtown notables such as Laurie Anderson and Arto Lindsay. Her resulting catalog was a continually shifting palette of music that presented her lithe voice to great effect, from samba to art rock.
In spite of Monte’s high-art sensibilities, she filled stadiums in Brazil, which enabled her to step back from the typical pop star grind and put out albums at her own pace and negotiate with her label so that she owned all her own songs. Monte took a bit of a detour in 2002, teaming up with two friends, the Brazilian stars Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, to form Tribalistas. The loose-limbed, jaunty collaboration seemed like just a fun project tossed off by some pals, but it still yielded several hits in Brazil. With her latest, Monte seems to have synthesized it all, but created an album that leans toward her quieter side. Still ever-present is Monte’s attention to detail—even songs that seem as light as mist are tastefully and carefully assembled to create a lovely ambience for listeners.
“Calma” is a shuffling, mid-tempo pop tune, with the narrator singing to an ex to move on peacefully and not create a “storm in a glass of water.” Though it is about the breakup of a relationship, the call for peace seems to be part of the album’s overall message to an increasingly tempestuous world.
Elsewhere in this initial phase of the album, Monte creates a lovely waltz on “Em Quelquer Tom (In Whatever Tone),” a poetic bossa “Espaçonaves (Spaceships),” and a slow-swinging paean to the natural world “A Lingua dos Animais (The language of the Animals).” In addition to her familiar partnerships with Antunes and Brown, Monte teams for the first time with Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler for “Vento Sardo (Sardinian Winds),” in what can almost seem like a contest of who can sing more sweetly. Unsurprisingly, it’s a balmy, breezy song that pays homage to the various types of winds that blow – literally and figuratively – through our lives.
She ends the album with an upswing of energy, starting with “Elegante Amanhecer,” a reminder of her familial roots to the venerable Portela samba school. On this love song to the school, she employs her honeyed voice to float over a small, driving melange of percussion, the kind of samba ensemble one might encounter in a small bar in Rio, rather than the huge ensembles that dance through the streets for carnival.
After that song fades out, next up is “Voça Não Liga (You Don’t Care),” the funkiest tune on the album, though even with the augmentation of a punchy brass section, it is not as energetic as some of her early career funk experimentation.
Monte ends the album with the sweet, acoustic-guitar driven song, “Pra Melhorar (To Improve),” which echoes her collaboration with Tribalistas, though her vocal teammates here are Seu Jorge and his daughter, Flor. This closing tune seems to be an unmistakable message of hope for a troubled world. The simple lyrics, augmented with a string section, repeats several times: “When you think it's all wrong and negative/And that it will get worse, worse/For everyone, life is difficult, but everyone makes their sacrifice/to improve, improve/There comes the sun/to melt the black clouds/To light the end of the tunnel/and the light of heaven.”
For her first solo album in 10 years, Monte returns to form, but in an unexpectedly quiet way. She is the writer of each song with various co-writers and is listed as “general director” at the top of the credits. This is a woman who continues to have full control of her career and music.
The album seems to be less-ambitious than one might expect after the long wait, but still shows her to be a superb pop craftsperson, able to spin out lovely music that seems effortless despite the careful work that went into it.