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The Molting of Nelly Furtado

On the occasion of ‘The Ride,’ her sixth album, an exploration of the many reinventions of a lovable 21st-century pop star who might not love you back

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Nelly Furtado has been threatening to renounce her fame — and your love — since long before she actually got famous. At the mere mention of her name, you are probably humming the chorus to yourself right now, from the year 2000’s loveliest and cruelest pop hit, lithe and soaring and triumphant and emphatic in its inevitable rejection of you, of everyone: “I’m like a bird / I only fly away.” Great karaoke song! Terrible love song! I will break up with you eventually, is the gist. That’s what you get for dating a bird, dumbass. The second verse is both delicate and savage:

Your faith in me brings me to tears
Even after all these years
And it pains me so much to tell
That you don’t know me that well

Furtado’s new album, The Ride — her sixth — is out on Friday. It’s great, and weird, and welcoming, but also gently forbidding: She specializes in love songs about how her autonomy is worth more to her than love. You lost her before you even had her. And she knew it from the start.

“I’m Like a Bird” hails from her winsome and terribly named debut album, Whoa, Nelly!, which in 2000 sounded like the future, like the 21st century incarnate. A Canadian polymath born to Portuguese parents, Furtado introduced herself as a global-domination-minded pop star with a jazz singer’s rubbery inflections, her voice sharp-edged but warm, thin but impressively pliable. (She stretches that last well in the verse above to seven syllables; there’s some Amy Winehouse to her, or vice versa.)

That whole first record is both cheerful and cheerfully hostile, with multiple radio hits (“Baby Girl” has a righteous berimbau riff) joined by a song called “Shit on the Radio (Remember the Days).” There is a profound ambivalence here, about the whole global-pop-star thing: The last two tracks are “I Will Make U Cry” and “Scared of You.” The chorus to “Baby Girl,” come to think of it, is, “I don’t want to be your baby girl.” Hello. Nice to meet you. Don’t touch me. Maybe don’t even look at me. Forget this ever happened. Goodbye.

Whoa, Nelly! went platinum multiple times over. (Seriously, that’s what I would’ve named the album, if you’d asked me to, which is why you should never ask me to name anything.) Furtado had cultural capital, and she used it immediately: Her next album, 2003’s Folklore, starts with a song called “One-Trick Pony” that features the Kronos Quartet. “I am not a one-trick pony,” she sings. “Nobody can control me.” Yeah, got it. She teamed up with Timbaland on 2006’s Loose, a full-blown dance-floor makeover with three massive hits — a flawlessly executed sellout move that only made her seem more imperial, more ungovernable, less for-sale than ever. This song is on the same god tier as “Work It.”

She’d established a pattern, in that she was hellbent on avoiding any sort of pattern. Next came 2009’s all-Spanish-language Mi Plan, a shrewd and mischievous pivot. (She likes that word, mischievous.) After that came 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible, anchored by the bumptious “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better),” Furtado reeling off sultry eh-eh-ehs like she was Rihanna’s biggest fan. She puts out new albums at a steady, healthy clip, but each one feels like a full reboot, a reinvention, a strident renunciation of what came before. Or maybe just a renunciation of you.

It is in this spirit that she returns with The Ride, arty and nervy and produced by John Congleton, who more often works with the likes of Spoon and Sleater-Kinney and Swans. (Furtado describes him as “a real, traditional, alternative producer.”) We kick off with “Cold Hard Truth,” the chilly strut a little unfamiliar, the lyrical sentiment very familiar, in that we all get kicked to the curb all over again:

And the cold hard truth is
I can make it
Without you
And the cold hard truth is
I waited

Furtado and Congleton first got together after St. Vincent introduced them, which explains a whole hell of a lot. The Ride is quirky on a massive scale, full of weird noises and huge choruses, wobbly and supremely confident. “Paris Sun” has a tremendously pleasing, almost Wu-Tang-like piano rumble; “Sticks and Stones” is a soaring New Wave jam with echoes of M83’s “Midnight City.” A useful reference point here is Tegan and Sara, the twin-sister duo who also kicked off around the turn of the century with a knotty sound that has slowly evolved into something resembling radio-minded synthesizer ecstasy. Furtado’s not doing the same thing in reverse, exactly, but both artists have arrived at the same intersection of Pop and Art from opposite directions, simultaneously chasing and subverting mass appeal in their own strident, singular ways.

Furtado’s PR pitch here, to the extent she’s willing to make one, is that she got back to basics as a human: working at a record store, taking pottery and sewing classes, scrubbing her own toilets again so as to use “cleaning as a way to spread light,” and treating label/industry folks the way Marie Kondo suggests you treat household clutter. She’s had it with the bullshit, just like always, but now even more so. “Pipe Dreams,” slow and prickly, is about how she’s sick to death of pipe dreams; the catchiest, most inviting song here, “Tap Dancing,” is about how she’s sick to death of doing it:

Don’t look too closely
Just clap your hands
Don’t say you know me
Just cue the band
And let me tap dance for you

Pop stars are trained to at least feign ambivalence about pop stardom, to vacillate between pulling you closer and pushing you off a cliff. What’s weird and great about Furtado is that, from the onset, she somehow did both at once, every new fearsome declaration of independence more beguiling and ingratiating than the last. She’s not for sale, but make your best offer anyway. The record ends with “Phoenix,” a sumptuous power ballad, Furtado cooing, “You’re gonna be alright” over and over, offering the unguarded intimacy and comfort she’s always been so quick to deny.

The shape of another shrewd pivot to come. (Related: “Phoenix” is, technically, about a bird.) You can sink right into this song, and inevitably you do, but maybe don’t get too comfortable. You know what animal she’s like. Nelly Furtado is back, and more to the point never truly left, and has somehow managed to make herself seem weirder and cooler than ever. Even after all these years, you still don’t know her at all.