Sebastien Tellier, a white knight of Gallic pop and wearer of a most feudal beard, garnered warm stateside reactions in 2004 with “La Ritournelle,” an orchestral piece of pop that featured Tony Allen’s crisp and powerful drumming. Sexuality (still only available in American Apparel stores, with a record-store launch set for October) stands in contrast to Tellier’s earlier work by wrapping the entire record in a digital veneer – not a huge surprise given that Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo produced the album. What is unexpected, however, is the album’s disinterested expression. Save for a few moments of inspiration, like the candied “Kilometer,” Sexuality is a bit of a drag.
Despite De Homem-Christo’s steering, Sexuality is in places too soulful to be pigeonholed as an electro or dance record. Much of Tellier’s work here is as informed by traditional R&B as it is by nouveau synthesizer tweaking. Indeed, if there is one album that Sexuality alludes to in attitude and subject matter it is Midnight Love, Marvin Gaye’s final meditation on sex and its revelry. The analogy is most obvious on Tellier’s “Pomme,” a “Sexual Healing” facsimile that recasts Gaye’s recurring flat keyboard tones and secondary guitar plucking to the same sultry and unsubtle effects.
What Tellier does not have, and what prevents Sexuality from being comfortably described as an R&B work, is a voice that comes anywhere near Gaye’s. To remedy this, Tellier masks his croon in the production booth. It is a filtered and somewhat unnatural sound, in contrast to the album’s earthy themes of passion and lust. This paradox is compelling but registers as less than sexual. Of course, this is not a circumstance of the synthesizers itself. Roger Troutman spent his career making soul music in spite of his talkbox chewing by emphasizing familiar song structures and melodies. Tellier and De Homem-Christ are too experimental for this approach. Even on “Divine,” which incorporates elements of doo-wop and recalls Troutman’s more pop-driven material, the two hold the conventional at arm’s length. “Divine” is a study in pop, not a commitment to it.
So too does all of Sexuality sound like an observer rather than a participant. How else to explain an album about sex that feels so sterile? Even the album’s centerpiece “Sexual Sportswear” – you do the cause-and-effect analysis for Tellier’s ongoing American Apparel tie-in – is coolly non-libidinal. “Sexual Sportswear” rests on a couplet of keyboard loops, a jumping succession of harpsichord-ish notes juxtaposed against a recurring blotter of extended soft chords. Add a drumbeat and, voila, you have something almost momentous. Too bad it fails to move. “Sexual Sportswear” is overly rigid and emphasizes the song’s programming at the expense of any expressiveness. It is pristine, not dirty; mechanical, not sporty. It is computer love, fully assimilated and satisfied.