Just how many AR Rahmans are there? For starters, there's the AR Rahman who's been at the top of the music-industry food chain for 27 years, and counting. (There's never been a consistently undisputed No.1 after him, at least in Tamil film music.) Then there's the AR Rahman who's seen as a spent force. (He's not the same guy who gave us Delhi-6, some people will whisper.) We also have the AR Rahman who seems to have grown bored with local fodder and seeks greener grass outside the country, with artistes like Majid Majidi (Beyond the Clouds) and Gurinder Chadha (Viceroy's House) and Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (Pelé: Birth of a Legend). And yet, there's the AR Rahman who still delivers for homies like Mani Ratnam and Shankar, who won't make a movie without him. Psst! There's also the AR Rahman who does films that don't really need an AR Rahman. (Yes, I'm talking about Bigil, Lingaa, Mohenjo what-the-heck-was-that Daro).
And now, we have the ambitious AR Rahman, the existential AR Rahman, the "what's left to aim for after winning two Oscars and two Grammies?" AR Rahman, the AR Rahman who's branching out as producer and co-story writer, the AR Rahman who's dropped the 14 songs of 99 Songs on us. Let's not get to the "Is it good?" question right away. Let's just sit in silence, for a moment, and acknowledge that something like this exists. This isn't just a movie's soundtrack album. It's a concept album, like the thematically linked whoppers that major rock bands used to make when music was more than just something you listened to while doing the dishes or driving to work.
The themes run through the songs. The words that keep coming up are about love (aashiqa, humnawaa, junoon, fitoor, jiya), religion (dua, khuda, Rab, farishta, Sai) and — intriguingly — motherhood (maa, laadla, mera chand). The themes run through the music as well, like in the female/male variants of Jwalamukhi, voiced by Poorvi Koutish and Arijit Singh. The former sounds like 80s pop-rock, like Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of The Heart, or if Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want To Have Fun dialled itself down a few notches in the fun department. Poorvi Koutish belts out the words as though spewing out lava. I preferred the way Arijit Singh carries the tune. He sounds like he's simply carrying a torch for someone, until the number launches him into the upper registers and it becomes a big, flaming torch. His o-o-o-o-o-o humming is the vocal equivalent of skywriting.
The themes run through the songs in less obvious ways, too. Sai Shirdi Sai (Bele Shende) is clearly a bhajan, but listen to O Aashiqa and you'll sense that, despite that opening phrase, this isn't the usual love song. Save for the lush chorus that backs a few lines, the arrangements are minimal and the tune has the simplicity, the serenity of a school prayer. Shashwat Singh hits the notes with almost staccato-like precision. There are no glides, no quavers, none of those embellishments singers give us to show how well they can sing. Phoolon ki chaahat mein amrit piya goes a line — again, there's that mix of earthly love and something divine. At one point, the song takes off into a new dimension, with a totally different dynamic range. The prayer is now a power ballad — and yet, that serenity is still lurking around. We hear a musical phrase from the bhajan, Sai Shirdi Sai.
And those very phrases are hummed, again, in an interlude of O Mera Chand (Bele Shende), a basic hush-a-bye-baby lullaby in raag Yaman, rocked by the gentle rhythms of an acoustic guitar. And The Oracle — an instrumental piece, with the piano at the centre — circles back to the opening melodic line of O Aashiqa. This melodic line is later elongated — i.e., each note is held for a longer duration — in a thrilling run-up to a shower of arpeggios. There's undeniably a lot of interesting music, here. After the interlude in Teri Nazar, I expected a full-fledged antara when I heard Shashwat Singh get to the lines "Dilnara, o dilnara / Dil haara main dil haara" — but that's it. It's just a bridge, and we're back to the mukhda. We're back to "teri nazar".
What else is interesting? I liked the second line of O Aashiqa, which ends on an unresolved note and makes you anticipate the closure, which comes in the chorus: "O jiya tu jiya tu jiya…" I liked Sofia (Shashwat Singh, again), which exists in one of my favourite AR Rahman zones, the zone inhabited by beauties like Nazar Laaye from Raanjhanaa. The song is structured like Maria from West Side Story, where the lover's very name becomes a refrain, a vitamin mantra. The continuous repetition of the name at the end conjures up a happy, peppy, stadium-rock feel — as does the chorus of Nayi Nayi (Shashwat Singh). This is again one of my favourite AR Rahman zones, the zone inhabited by Mazhai Kuruvi (Chekka Chivantha Vaanam) and Thalli Pogathey (Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada). The song feels like an explorer who decided to chuck his compass and follow his whim.
Humnawaa is the album's sing-this-if-you-can dare. It has possibly one of the oddest voice pairings in Indian music history. The singers listed are Armaan Malik and Shashaa Tirupati, but the latter pairs up with the piano. And she doesn't offer counterpoints. She just hugs the toccata-like piano runs, like plastic casing on a cable. The remaining numbers are a mixed lot. The percussion-heavy Veere Kadh De hails from the Punjabi rap-verse. The Voice Without Words (Poorvi Koutish) is a gauzy half-ballad with lines like "the ocean sings to the moon" and "the wind, it whispers to the trees". If you've wondered what Jonathan Livingston Seagull would sound like if transformed into a serenade performed by a philosophy major in a planetarium, search no further.
Teri Nazar, backed by an e-dafli, is… pleasant. Gori Godh Bari, in which Alka Yagnik appears, offers a sharp contrast to the other songs. It's Hindustani style, set in raag Bageshri — the sitar and the sharp slap of the tabla is a welcome change, like Soja Soja, with its blares of Big Band trumpets. Shashaa Tirupati gets this nightclub-jazz number all to herself, and goes all the way from a whisper (think Mohammad Rafi in Tumse kahoon ek baat paron si, from Dastak) to a banshee wail. Again, note the themes swirling around. Soja soja… makes you think of a mother, a lullaby. But the song is something about soured love, I think!
So now, the "Is it good?" question. The singers are uniformly great. But despite its highlights, the album itself is easier to admire than love. For something that's clearly a passion project, the project could have used more… passion. It crawls around the edges of the envelope without really pushing it. It's Delhi-3. I know, I know. Some of you will say I need to listen to it more, and then it will grow on me. This definition of AR Rahman's music as an aural beard — the more you shave, the thicker it grows — is something I've always wondered about. The more times you listen to a song, are you liking it or simply making it familiar, which is just another word for getting used to it? Because there are tons of this composer's songs that I've liked with just one listen.
I'm sure a part of it is also due to the lyrics, which are strictly functional. Is this intentional? Do listeners just want big, easy-to-remember rhymes like sukoon / junoon or bezubaan / meherbaan? Do people no longer want a thought to be carried through? I'm not even going back to the era of Shailendra or Gulzar. Compare this album's O Mera Chand to another AR Rahman-composed lullaby, Pyaara Sa Gaon, from Zubeidaa. In the latter, Javed Akhtar talks about a faraway mango grove, a road that grows from the shade and leads to a village, and this village has a small house, and there's a courtyard with a cradle, and in that cradle lies an infant whose eyes are heavy with sleep. They say good music transports us. Good lyrics do, too — and in this case, literally so. In a few lines, we have been plucked from a mango grove and deposited by the side of the infant. These days, you have to wade through 99 songs to find lines that move you like that.