In retrospect, albums like Delhi-6 seem to have inaugurated a mellow phase in A.R. Rahman’s career. The last few years have given us a number of albums (Kadal and Raanjhana the most recent of these) to confirm the impression that the master has, where the subject gives him rein, shifted gears: the qawwalis have become more reflective (contrast “Arziyan” (Delhi-6) with “Noor-un-Alaa” (Meenaxi) from a few years earlier); the love songs increasingly suffused with a murmuring longing (“Moongil Thottam” (Kadal)), and even a jazz bent (“Aaromale” (Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya)); the sounds a bit less ornate, but just as rich. Maryan is in this vein. It is leaner than Raanjhana (Rahman’s most recent Hindi composition), and if two of the lighter tracks are far more trivial than anything in the latter, at its best (which is to say in its four slower songs) Maryan is more reflective, almost unsettlingly so: you really miss it when the music stops playing. This is, quite simply, Rahman’s best Tamil album in years for any director not named Mani Rathnam.
Rahman’s solo, Nenjae Yezhu, leads off the CD, a few delicate strains reminiscent of water and journeys giving way to soaring vocals that, in their sense of wonder and consciousness of a new landscape beheld, preserve a link with the very early Rahman composition “Ye Haseen Wadian” (Roja). Over two decades and dozens of albums have barely dimmed the composer’s freshness: while the listener is aware of too much history to lend his encounter with the later work the same aura of discovery that forever tinges Roja, Nenjae Yezhu shows that Rahman remains willing to start again. The traveler is now older for sure, but his ardor for the journey is as bright as ever.
The same sort of bucolic strains that begin “Ae Hairath-e-Aashiqui” (Guru) lead to Vijay Prakash’s vocals in Innum Konjam Naeram; Shweta Mohan joins a bit later, and the result is a melodious, if conventional, love duet, but one that is immensely satisfying – a reminder, if any were needed, that Rahman comes at the end of a long tradition. In the final analysis, to take this most hackneyed of film music genres and keep making music that sounds soulful, not jaded, might be one of the composer’s greatest achievements.
Naetru Aval Irundhal is apt as the next track: it takes “Innum Konjam Naeram” a step further, and begins with the low notes and erotic intimacy of Vijay Prakash and Chinmayi (the simple contrast between the two voices – Prakash’s resonant bass in the words “Naetru Aval Irundhal”, reminiscent of Hariharan; followed by Chinmayi’s higher pitched, “thinner” voice, as she playfully croons “He…mariyaan” – is instantly compelling), before taking slow flight into less joyous climes. Love isn’t just balm for the soul here, it is also suffused with melancholy, as that which will be lost.
My favorite from this album, and a song of heartbreaking loveliness, Yenga Pona Raasa is intensely romantic, taking you to a place that is familiar, sad and filled with meaning. A song of love and loss, but not, perhaps, of loneliness (merely solitude), it brings “Kannathil Muthamittal” (Kannathil Muthamittal) to mind, although the later song sketches the contours of a soundscape that is nowhere near as lush, but marked by a trace: the afterglow of a lover’s absence. Shaktishree Gopalan soared with the outstanding “Nenjukkulle” (Kadal) a few months ago, and is unforgettable in this far more introverted track – her pairing with Rahman looks set to give us magic for years to come.
Sonapareeya is charming without quite being memorable, the requisite “catchy number” rendered somewhat interesting by the retro – and vaguely Hindi film-sounding -- “Sonapareeya” refrain that should jar, but doesn’t. That seamlessness is testament to Rahman’s skill, but the song is pretty modest and is a bit of filler between two outstanding tracks. I have long been critical of Rahman’s bland rap efforts, but Sofia Ashraf’s vocals here (as, of course, MIA’s outstanding ones in “O Saya” (Slumdog Millionaire)) suggest that perhaps Rahman’s problem is male rap artists. This album doesn’t do much to dispel that impression: I Love My Africa is unworthy of Rahman (although pretty much what I would expect from Blaaze), and sounds like something cobbled together for the 2010 football World Cup, with bits of heavy percussion, Brian Kabwe’s “Africa…Africa” refrain, and some generic mambo beats – in short, an advertiser’s idea of what an “African sound” might be like. I wish it were the last song in the album, and thus could more easily be skipped.
Kadal Raasa Naan is actually the last song on the CD, and the opening ten seconds seem to flow from Yenga Pona Raasa (refracted through a Middle Eastern prism), before resolving into a fast-paced, and very Tamil, number sustained by Yuvanshankar Raja’s soulful vocals, combined with occasional neo-shehnai strains. This song isn’t new, but it is pitched at an urgent level, and is stealthily addictive: I dismissed it as trivial for weeks before realizing that I couldn’t stop listening to the CD until I’d heard its last track.