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Beyonce’s bitter lemons make a caustic ‘Lemonade’

Criticizing Beyonce has become akin to criticizing someone’s religious beliefs. You can’t simply rely on reason or an examination of supporting empirical evidence to make your case. Beyonce’s fans are running on faith, and faith brooks no criticism. You either believe or you don’t.

Bearing this in mind, I wish I loved “Lemonade” more than I do. My life would be so much simpler. But alas, while it has its moments of striking beauty and is touched by what sure sounds like genuine suffering, it is not truly the unblemished masterpiece it is already being hailed as.

High-level songwriting demands the ability to be oblique. With song lyrics, this means finding a way to make the deeply personal come across as broadly universal. The listener needs to know you’re feeling it, whatever “it” is. But if you drag us down with too many first-person details, it becomes all about you, and not about us.

For her sixth release, Beyonce walks the tightrope between the personal and the universal, leaning this way and then that way, losing her balance, but never quite falling. Life has handed her lemons, and this new audio/visual collection – a movie to accompany the album made its surprise debut on HBO, and its a striking affair – represents her attempt to squeeze some “Lemonade” out of them. How successful she has been in this endeavor is open to interpretation.

Husband Jay Z has been less than faithful, it seems, and most of “Lemonade” involves his wife calling him out for his wandering ways. This is either a rallying cry for women who find themselves in similar situations, or it’s like one of those cringe-worthy Facebook posts where someone shares way too much personal information about their love life.

When “Lemonade” succeeds, it does so largely on the strength of its inventiveness, much of it production-based, but just as much of it resulting from Beyonce’s most raw, direct and on-point singing to date.

The subject is intimate, and wisely, the production ethos mirrors that intimacy, for the most part.

The layered harmony vocals that open that album are lovely and suffused with yearning. They lead the listener directly into the whispered-in-your-ear confession that is “Pray You Catch Me,” a song that lets us in on the torture a woman left at home by a wandering man undergoes. It’s a tough listen, even more so when coupled with the film version of the album, which incorporates images of suicide. “Hold Up” adds a bit of levity, but that levity is laced with defiance, and Beyonce is right up in the microphone once again, her vocal bare and underproduced.

By this point, the listener is firmly on the side of the singer in this relationship war, the woman spurned who also is the mother abandoned having rigged the jury to hear only her side of the story. (Is there another side? I have no idea. But I tend to doubt it.)

So when “Don’t Hurt Yourself” arrives, and Beyonce struts her stuff atop a Led Zeppelin groove (borrowed from “When the Levee Breaks”), shooting off lines like “Keep your money, I got my own,” she’s already won the war, marrying her personal struggle to the struggle of all African-American women with a little help from a Malcolm X sample. Jack White’s contributions as co-producer provide a perfect setting for Beyonce to indulge in a scratchy-voiced performance that is one of her finest. This is the best music she has ever made. It has fire and it has nuance.

Sadly, the album is padded with a few far-less essential entries, among them the static and largely pulseless “Sorry,” and the overwrought “6 Inch (featuring the Weeknd),” a song that reminds us how much better Beyonce’s voice sounds when it isn’t bathed in auto-tune. She doesn’t need the help, and the overproduction kills the vibe of intimacy the album has worked so hard to conjure.

The New Orleans flair that underpins “Daddy Lessons” gets things back on track, and surprisingly, when the song evolves into a country-folk-pop stomp, Beyonce sounds convincing while toying with a genre that she has avoided in the past. Then we’re back into the pop-R&B stew with “Love Drought,” a tune whose lyrics sound like retreads of the themes already dealt with more effectively during the album’s first half.

The deeper we go into “Lemonade,” the more Beyonce repeats the album’s themes, and the more we start to feel like we’re spying on a relationship that has been seriously compromised.

“Lemonade” is Beyonce’s most musically inventive release, and when it sticks to its guns – the breathy, intimate, unadorned stuff, the material that allows us to experience Beyonce as vulnerable, fallible, human – it offers a deeply moving experience. However, when things take a turn toward reality television, and we feel like voyeurs eavesdropping on what should be private issues between a man and a woman in a relationship that involves children, the bond of intimacy is lost. It’s really none of our business, any of it.

Pain gives “Lemonade” a unifying theme. But in the end, the pain is Beyonce’s, not our own. If there’s a moral to the story – a reason for us to suffer along with the singer – it is never made clear.


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