D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar may have helped start neo soul, but it would be Maxwell who redefined its boundaries with a mix of elements not usually associated with the genre on his second studio album.
Embrya introduced a new element of mysticism that had been lost in the soul music vernacular. On some levels the Stuart Matthewman co-produced album features the same kind of heavy electronic bass sometimes associated with Matthewman’s other projects like Sade. The emphasis on groove over melody and lighter more abstract lyrics at times sounded more neo-psychedelic than neo-soul. The song names like the underwater cover photo suggested a kind of birth or rebirth of awareness with long song titles that read like new age bookstore offerings.
I remembered hearing this album and thinking of it as something altogether new and different. Such mysticism and abstraction in R&B had not been heard like this since Stevie Wonder’s 1970s era classics. Maxwell played down the jazz aspects with more emphasis on the groove. It wasn’t Bootsy Collins funky, but slow to mid tempo seductive.
It was the kind of sound that made Maxwell popular with buppies as well as white pop/rock progressive types. Had this been a Lisa Stansfield album, it would have been labeled alternative soul, but Maxwell uses alternative elements while keeping its appeal squarely within the cross hairs of R&B radio. There were even moments where Maxwell sings in Spanish (“I’m You: You Are Me and We Are You”) as if to maximize his appeal in emerging markets.
Songs like “Drowndeep: Hula” contained mildly psychedelic elements paired with a deep immersive bass. Much of the album was shrouded in an aura and ambiance as if in a dream. On occasion the veil was stripped away to reveal straightforward songs like the emotionally vulnerable “Know These Things: Shouldn’t You”.
Embrya threw many critics for a curve. Expecting a similar sound to the excellent Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, they instead found a daring album that fell outside the of their expectations. While reviews may have been mixed initially, calling it pretentious new age fluff or overly artsy. Fortunately, the public was more decisive in their approval. Sales reached over a million units with a placement within the top three spots on both the Billboard Albums and R&B charts.
The experiment paid off by expanding Maxwell’s fan base into the alternative rock crowd while managing not to alienate fans of traditional soul. Embrya is a rare moment when soul and meets the otherwise psychedelic mysticism reserved for rock, creating my favorite Maxwell album to date.