Rubén Blades

Blades has been thinking about making an album in English for years. The problem for the Panamanian-born singer-songwriter, whose perceptive, biting Spanish lyrics and hot band have modernized salsa and won him a worldwide following, was finding a comfortable musical idiom in which English would not be incongruous. For a while he thought of drawing on his West Indian heritage (Blades's paternal grandfather came from Saint Lucia) and creating an English-speaking, calypso-playing character, Panama Blades. What he has done on Nothing but the Truth may find a wider audience than Panama Blades could have. It's also more ambitious. But it lacks the focus a Panama Blades album might have had—and that Blades's salsa LPs on Elektra have had in spades. The idiom Blades has found is basically American mainstream rock with a Latin flavor, a difficult hybrid that might have worked better played by one band rather than a shifting cast of studio musicians and guest stars, including members of his own group, Seis del Solar. Blades collaborated on three songs with Lou Reed and on two with Elvis Costello. Shamed Into Love is a ballad heavily stamped with Costello's brand of throat-catching romantic angst, and Blades sings it very much in the Costello style. Interesting but not as compelling as Blades or Costello on their own. Some gritty guitar work by Reed and Mike Rathke flavors Letters to the Vatican, with Reed and Blades's fondness for narratives and street characters meshing to produce a wry tale of a barfly named Rosie who writes in a letter: "Dear Pope, Send me some hope or a rope to do me in." Cute and catchy, with some punch, but you expect more from Blades. A couple of his own songs, such as Salvador, sound like his regular material only sung in English. It's hard to tell if lines like "Judges that condemn you have no names/ Could it be the gentleman that lives next door/ Or the guy who goes with you to work?" might sound better in Spanish. But for an English-speaking listener, Blades's Spanish lyrics always made a sparkling music in themselves, and these English lyrics don't. Maybe next time. (Elektra)

  • Contributors:
  • Eric Levin,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Ralph Novak.