On Thursday, March 19, when AR Rahman announced on Twitter that the 99 Songs album, with all its 14 tracks, will be released the next day, it felt the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We were only beginning to process the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak, and were going to be locked down in our homes for an indefinite number of days. There would be more free time to listen to the album—an exercise that has become something of a rarity these days, where singles rule and the release of a Hindi film album, if at all, happens after the release of the film. And we could all do with some good vibes. Add to that, this is the composer’s first Hindi film album in three years. I was thrilled. The day it came out, I sat down after dinner to listen to the album, like I would sit down to read a book or watch a TV show. Reality struck next day: I was doing the dishes while listening to 99 Songs, my hate for this particular house chore contrasted with my love for ARR, both, somehow, happening at the same time. But here’s the thing: of the 14 tracks, only about half of them work for me. 99 Songs is better than his last few Hindi albums such as Mom (2017) and Mohenjo Daro (2016)—yes, it’s been that long—but maybe not as adventurous as the flawed but beautiful Tamasha (2015), or nearly as original as Delhi 6 (2009) or Rockstar (2011).
There are songs with the magic touch, such as “O Aashiqa”—the first track of the album—which starts as a personal love song but transforms midpoint into something else, something bigger, both in terms of sound and spirit (‘Kya bole kabira, kya bulla kahe’, writes lyricist Navneet Virk). With a transition that recalls “Mannipaya” from Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya, the choruses come in, so do the large-scale percussions; in the end there is a symphony of voices, like a choir singing for world peace, and it’s rousing. Or the inventive and fun “Nayi Nayi”, which is like a fusion of the arena rock of Rockstar with the vibe of a naive 90s college campus movie like Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar–what’s with those cheesy cheerleading choruses repeating after the hero. In other parts, it’s like a indie rock anthem, bursting with the energy of youth.
In 99 Songs, his handling of the younger crop of singers is mentor-like. He pushes them, allows them to make mistakes, encourages them to retain the imperfections.
Both the songs are sung by Shashwat Singh, a Rahman regular, and in both he sounds different (with his clean singing and sincere delivery, he reminds you of Karthik). As the voice of the hero, who is a musician in the film, Singh sings most of the songs in the album, but not all; there is a whole range of voices: from Arijit Singh to Alka Yagnik to (surprise!) Armaan Malik to Poorvi Koutish, a product of his music school KMM Music Conservatory. When I had interviewed the composer last month, he sounded concerned about present-day playback singing, which has become overly dependent on easy fixes such as autotune and pitch correction (“Very few things have soul,” he had said). In 99 Songs, his handling of the younger crop of singers is mentor-like. He pushes them, allows them to make mistakes, encourages them to retain the imperfections. I didn’t quite warm up to “Humnawa” despite multiple listens, but he brings out the distinct character in Malik’s voice, who I have never paid attention to before. He uses the hell out of Arijit’s range, making him sing the highs apart from the grungy lows that define most of “Jwalamukhi”, a song that has a nice loopy addictiveness to it (With experience, Arijit’s voice has got richer and darker, and the composer captures that edgy quality in “Jwalamukhi”).
For the first time since “Man Mohana”, the divine bhajan from Jodhaa Akbar (2008), he uses Bela Shende, for another devotional song “Sai Shirdi Sai”— one of my favourites from the album (I am no believer, but I do feel a transcendence when I hear the Rahman’s spiritual songs). Even “Teri Nazar”, a song about the great pain of being separated from your lover, has quasi devotional tones (a Rahman sub genre that one could trace to songs such as “Mera Yaar Mila De” from Saathiya).
“Teri Nazar” is the only song from the album that had the famous “it’ll grow on you” effect on me–that curious quality that separates gods from lesser mortals. I liked my other favourites almost instantly. On the contrary, the more I have heard “Sofia” the less and less I have liked it (It starts off beautifully but fails to capitalise on it, and kind of drifts into a generic zone). I didn’t quite take to “Gori Godh Bhari”–as many fellow AR fans seem to have. It’s in the same line of traditional numbers sung by women as “Mehndi Hai Rachnewali” from Zubeidaa (2001) and “Aye Sakhi” from Raanjhanaa (2013), but it doesn’t have the melodic beauty or the playfulness of either; it’s a bit too demure, too straight.
But then again, you wonder if this is asking for too much at a time when Hindi film music, as we know it, is changing, largely driven by remixes and sonic templates. You get a sense that maybe the composer is trying to hit a middle ground between the current commercial sensibilities and the things he wants to do. (The arrangement, for instance, is a lot less imaginative in this album; there are no trippy solos, no instrumental beauties to talk about). But mostly you’re just happy that he is still around.