NAO’S “SATURN” IS MY NEW FAV THING
Saturn, the second album from London singer-songwriter Nao, is based on the Saturn return, that specter haunting all horoscopic astrology nerds in their late twenties, when the planet Saturn comes back to meet the same spot it was at your birth. Nao, loosely within that age bracket, is a shrewd observer of the phenomenon, which is said to leave all kinds of interpersonal grief and transformation in its wake. As the astrologer Chani Nicholas explained earlier this year, the Saturn return is a time when “we aren’t so innocent, unformed, or new anymore”—a time when, “if we are lucky, we realize that no one is going to save us. And if they tried it wouldn’t feel right.”
The album drifts through a mindset in flux, largely focusing on heartbreak and the regenerative bliss that comes after. Following her 2016 debut, For All We Know, Saturn draws from R&B, pop, and funk influences with considerable self-assurance. It also reveals a newfound precision in her production, choice of collaborators, and the fine-tuned intimacy of her lyrics—all of which throw the album’s themes of personal growth and astrology into sharp, gorgeous relief.
Nao’s voice, capable of quickly shifting between a husky lower register and a mellifluous, piercing falsetto, remains a vitalizing force over Saturn’s meditations on love and loss. On “Orbit,” the album’s shapeshifting centerpiece, she traces the state of mental unsteadiness that follows a breakup, anchored by plucked electric guitar and spacious programmed beats. The track takes its time meandering from a sung, broad-stroke depiction of the end of a relationship (“I lost you in dreams, now I’m falling”) to a pitch-shifted rap that chisels its failings down to minute detail (“I don’t care about this dog and you know I can’t afford it”). Unsparing yet emotionally generous, “Orbit” adds a new wrinkle to Nao’s songwriting without sacrificing any of its tenderness. That she calls out D’Angelo here (“You can give me the voodoo/Like D’Angelo said, ‘How does it, how does it feel?’”) seems especially apt—“Orbit” moves with the same pointed intention as the neo-soul forebear’s most balanced compositions.
But Nao doesn’t wallow for long. Highlights “If You Ever” and “Yellow of the Sun” are balmy, sunlit odes to dizzying romance, while the proto-funk of “Gabriel” and the icy, restrained “Curiosity” explore sultry new depths. Tapping familiars like Mura Masa, LOXE, and GRADES for production duties, with background players ranging from Daniel Caesar to the Chineke! Orchestra, Nao enlists musicians that help her deftly transition between lean future-pop and sparse, levitating R&B. She even indulges listeners with radio-oriented fare like the silky, SiR-featuring, straight-R&B cut “Make It Out Alive.”
Regrettably, when Nao slows things down too much the occasional clumsy turn of phrase becomes obvious. The title track, despite a lovely vocal feature by UK singer-songwriter Kwabs and an expansive, strings-enhanced backdrop, doesn’t add much nuance to the album’s astrological motif, and its lyrics are graceless: “Your constellation circulating me/Like a Capricorn, you’re hard to release.” Nao trips over a similar problem on the forgettable “Drive and Disconnect”: Over a guitar line and insistent Afropop beats, she vaguely intimates an escape from “too many crimes” while elaborating on approximately none of them.
Yet even for its sometimes awkward lyrics, Saturn is tempered with enough dynamic songwriting that these instances feel less like artistic failures than growing pains. Between Nao’s lush voice and the album’s glossy production, it’s easy to get lost in Saturn. A worthy successor to For All We Know, it homes in on a specific, if occasionally ham-fisted, conceit while expanding on her sound in clear, vibrant ways.