Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges - Clube Da Esquina - Review
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critics' view

While deep in the morass of a brutally repressive military regime, 1972 was a watershed moment for Brazilian pop music, or as it’s often called, MPB: Novos Baianos’ Acabou Chorare, Paulinho da Viola’s A Dança Da Solidão, the duo album from Nelson Angelo E Joyce, not to mention self-titled albums from Tim Maia, Jards Macalé, Tom Zé, and Elis Regina. And after years in exile, Tropicália heroes Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso returned home with career highlights in Expresso 2222 and Transa, respectively. Yet looming over them all is Clube Da Esquina, one of the most ambitious records in Brazilian music history, a double album that not only belongs in the same discussion with others in the Western canon — be it Blonde on Blonde or Exile on Main Street — but one that is even more uplifting and mystifying.

A landmark of Brazilian pop, the success of the album confirmed Nascimento as a star of MPB but also launched the careers of Clube bassist Beto Guedes, guitarists Toninho Horta, Nelson Angelo and the younger Borges. And while Nascimento was by far the most prominent member of the club, his name isn’t on the cover and he shared credit with the then-20-year-old Lô Borges, who sings lead on six of the songs. Nor is Nascimento’s face easily seen; you have to hunt through the 150 photos in the gatefold to find a small photo of him. As MPB scholar Charles Perrone wrote: “Because of his extraordinary individual musical talents…the collective aspect of Nascimento’s repertory are often overlooked. Clube Da Esquina emphasizes the notion of encounter and the importance of gathering.”

The magic of Clube Da Esquina is that while one can discern all of Nascimento and friends’ influences, their alchemy elevates it all to vibrate at a higher frequency. Casual and inspired, studied and spontaneous, the album is Pet Sounds, Innervisions and The White Album all rolled into one and it remains beloved even for those who know just a few Brazilian albums. And even for those who don’t speak or understand a lick of Portuguese, the vocal harmonies, hooks, and orchestrations slip the confines of language and strike at the heart.

So while you may not glean the lyrics of “Cais,” with its imagery of the sea, pier, and Nascimento’s plea for happiness, when the haunting ballad drops away at the 1:35 mark after singing about “launching myself,” a minor chord and his wordless harmonizing nevertheless conveys the bittersweet thrill of leaving the shore and drifting towards the unknown. You don’t need to translate the lyrics on “O Trem Azul” to feel the line about “the sun on your head,” so warm, languid, and tangible is its chorus. Same goes for the sensuous and ecstatic “Cravo E Canela,” which blends together sensations of caco honey and gypsy rain.

The album is full of such shifts, moments that act like a refreshing breeze across the skin on a sweltering day, a shaft of sun piercing the clouds, a kind gesture on a crowded bus, reflecting how in our own daily lives the smallest of movements can trigger a reverberation within. In the lyrics, in the subtle switching of a meter, a key shift or a pivot in instrumentation, each song sets you down in a space far different from where you began. That sense of movement is intentional, as trains, roads, and modes of transportation often figure into Nascimento’s writing, and he himself considered his music “a kind of oxcart, something that unrolls and develops.” There’s the burred guitar build-up at the end of the otherwise hushed “Dos Cruces,” the clamor of church bells that punctuate and illuminate “San Vicente,” the mournful cello and strings in the middle section of “Um Girassol Da Cor De Seu Cabelo” that launches into a redemptive chorus about “a sunflower the color of your hair.”

On the spare piano ballad “Um Gosto de Sol,” Nascimento moves through a half-forgotten dream, a stranger smiling in a foreign city, a river that falls to sleep, the sweet flesh of a pear, all of it tactile yet also ineffable. And then the minor key motif from “Cais” return, this time as a string quartet rather than piano and voice. It’s a surreal moment on the album, one worthy of Luis Buñuel, that image of the boat drifting from the pier now juxtaposed with a pear in a fruit bowl, the most poignant string section this side of “Eleanor Rigby” now reveals an underlying melancholy and sense of estrangement to the surface.

Yet one of the album’s brightest, breeziest tunes led to Brazil’s federal censors originally blocking the recording of the song, an instance of a disconnect between the music and words. “Paisagem Da Janela” [Landscape From the Window] is clopping, country-tinged soft rock with a chiming guitar line, but Lô Borges’s refrain belies such lightness: “When I would speak of those morbid things/When I would speak of those sordid men/When I would speak of this storm/You didn’t listen/You don’t want to believe/But that’s so normal.” It speaks of a past that could also be a commentary on that moment under the rule of the junta. It’s also one of the album’s catchiest choruses, a natural for a sing-along.

A military dictatorship trying to suppress such a song reveals that beyond the perfect pop songcraft and immaculate arrangements, Clube Da Esquina also signified the subtlest and most profound of revolutionary acts. “The military dictatorship imposed an element of urgency,” journalist Paulo Thiago de Mello wrote about the repressive political climate that surrounded Esquina. “And this is something that those who did not live those days may have difficulty understanding. The suffocation provoked by the dictatorship made life urgent.” Under such tyranny, the idyllic possibilities of youth are crushed. Be it Stalinist Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or under the brutal military dictatorships that sprang up throughout the Southern Hemisphere in the ’60s and ’70s, social bonds are not just strained and severed, but also called into question. It’s no coincidence then that Nascimento references the Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata in the first minute of the album.

“Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life…by isolating men,” wrote Hannah Arendt in her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism. “But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation…It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all.” In hanging and playing together, Milton Nascimento and his friends provided a beacon in the midst of their country’s “vazio cultural” (or cultural void).

Clube Da Esquina, the album itself and the subsequent movement, emphasized casual social encounters and the importance of getting together and playing, and as a result, it elevated not just Nascimento, but the entire collective.

Andy Beta
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