By Sophie Gilbert
As art goes, Robin Thicke’s Paula is less Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and more the musical equivalent of a Facebook friend who refuses to stop overdoing it on tequila slammers and ranting about the demise of their relationship. It’s messy, it’s generally grammatically incoherent, it’s humiliating for everyone involved. You can’t help but feel for the eponymous Paula (Patton, the actress), Thicke’s wife, who’s kept an inordinately graceful silence throughout their separation while Thicke’s been prostrating himself onstage, sending greenhouses full of flowers, and writing songs that are imaginatively titled “Get Her Back” and “Love Can Grow Back.”
As exercises in ostentatious narcissism go, Paula is less Ozymandias and more an overindulgent interview with Oprah, one in which Thicke goes on and on and on about his needs and his desires and his flaws and his blissful memories of drinking wine in the park and being happy without once considering the fact that Patton might not want her marriage dissected over the course of 14 incongruously jaunty songs, or might not particularly enjoy Thicke describing to the world how he likes to remember “your legs on my walls, your body on the ceiling.” Although he gives voice to Patton on the record by having backup singers screech lyrics like “I kept trying to tell you you were pushing me too far,” she’s otherwise an entirely abstract construct around which he winds his sticky strands of mortification. “I was in chains in the rain, lost my soul, now you know,” he sings on “Still Madly Crazy,” a song that has the Disneyish piano riffs (if not the subtlety and emotional nuance) of a musical theater ballad. “I’m so sorry you had to suffer my lack of self-control. You’d think by now I might have grown.”
Thicke, 37 years old and a father, has apparently no compunction about blurting out an endless stream of angsty self-obsession on his newest record, chased with occasional odes to his prowess as a seducer of women. “You’re way too young to dance like that in front of a man like me babe,” he sings primly in the oddly titled “Love Can Grow Back,” before abruptly giving in to whoever’s trying to have sex with him. “You know cigarettes are bad for you baby—so am I … With your new nails on your back you’ll be scratching my, scratching my itch.” (Love might grow back, but sexy fingernails have to be purchased.)
Here’s the backstory in miniature of the origins of Paula, for those who might have missed it: The singer, once a geeky, long-haired, Beethoven-sampling bicycle courier, had the biggest hit of his career with 2013’s uber-viral “Blurred Lines,” a song that either celebrated women or defined rape culture, depending on your point of view. In the video, a fully clothed Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. smirked at the camera while three naked models draped themselves artfully over the set; Thicke later proclaimed loudly to the scandalized masses that his wife approved. He also insisted she was supportive when a bikini-clad Miley Cyrus gave him a lap dance during the MTV Video Music Awards, but Paula presumably was less appreciative when a photo emerged showing her husband in a nightclub groping a blonde socialite. Ever the gentleman, he appears to allude to this moment in the song “Something Bad” when he croons the cumbersome line, “Bird flew in my window, took a picture, and left with a naughty tweet.”
Paula isn’t afraid to get tabloid-tawdry as Thicke rakes through the coals of his marriage with the gusto of a chimney sweep. In “Black Tar Cloud,” which may or may not refer to heroin, cigarettes, or both, he describes a woman smashing his guitar and telling him she’s taken an overdose. “Turns out I’m the only one who double-dipped,” he sings mournfully, making it all about him again. Then, in “Too Little, Too Late,” a song that has all the sophistication of something composed by a 12-year-old on a 1987 Casio keyboard, he berates himself for not being a better husband: “I should have brought you roses, rubbed your toeses … I should have thanked you, spanked you.”
The closest Thicke comes to a real moment of revelation on Paula is on “The Opposite of Me,” which offers an appealingly upbeat, girl-band glimpse of sackcloth-and-ashes-Robin, interspersed with cheery refrains of “do-do, do-do” from his reliable posse of Patton stand-ins. ‘”All that she wants is the honesty,” he sings. “All that she wants is the opposite of me.” A piano sweetly works its way up a scale at the end of each verse, as if it were a song about teenagers getting nervous about prom instead of an ego-monster cheating on his wife.
Tonally, Paula jumps all over the musical spectrum but never quite lands on a hit. “You’re My Fantasy” incorporates Spanish guitar trills in a way that makes it sound like 2001-era Timberlake-lite, while the X-rated lyrics are apparently an attempt to bump ‘n’ grind Patton into submission. The languorous, R&B-tinged riffs of “Get Her Back” are generically inoffensive, with Thicke’s voice sounding mostly mellifluous and gentle (he’s much huskier on “Still Madly Crazy,” as though he’s been crying for eons). The worst song on the record, without even a shadow of a doubt, is “Tippy Toes,” which feels like an unholy melding of Raffi, Chubby Checker, and Viagra.
If Paula were merely a generically confused record with weak lyrics (those chains in the rain again), Brechtian clashes between storytelling and mood, and Thicke’s psychologically unstable attempts to atone for his sins and brag about them at the same time, that would be one thing. But its TMI sleaziness drags it into a new realm of oversharing; one in which Patton gets no say on whether her dirty laundry should be dragged out on tour (or whether her image and her name is projected on a screen to an audience of millions at the BET Awards). Paula isn’t a humiliating public apology, or even a confession: It’s an act of aggression akin to parking your car outside someone’s house for days on end or taking out a billboard with their phone number on it. Thicke isn’t just embarrassing his ex-wife on this record, he’s violating her privacy, and denying her a quiet and unimpeded separation.
“Vanity’s my only friend,” sings Thicke on “Something Bad.” It’s entirely possible that’s true, but it’s also the enabler of one of the grossest, most manipulative records ever made.