Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
Adam Lambert is done playing by the rules. In the last decade, since rising to fame as an American Idol runner-up and touring extensively with Queen as their frontman since 2014, he’s established himself as a talented vocalist with a falsetto that channels the nostalgic sounds of the eras that came before him. But his own music didn’t always represent that talent as much as it could have: his first album For Your Entertainment kept him in the mainstream for a hot minute, thanks to production from Dr. Luke and Max Martin. But his follow-up albums Trespassing and The Original High—both of which aimed towards mainstream electropop—lacked originality and allowed Lambert’s true talents to slip through the cracks. Now, five years later, he’s back with a new studio album on an independent label that is more funky, soulful, silky, and authentically Adam Lambert than we’re used to hearing.
“I’ve been feeling nostalgic,” he laments on the title track of his fourth studio album, Velvet, but he doesn’t need to tell us that. From the moment the album begins, its retro, nostalgic sounds are immediately front and center. Making an album whose sound is rooted in those of the past is certainly nothing new, but it works so well here because Lambert is in his element—something that, aside from performances with Queen, we’ve never quite seen in his solo work. Velvet feels effortless and natural, from the funk and disco beats to the synth and soft rock influences.
It sometimes feels forced and unnatural when an artist decides to channel their inspirations from the past, attempting to fit a puzzle piece where it doesn’t belong. If anything, Lambert’s previous music is what feels hopelessly forced and contrived in comparison to Velvet. The singer described the album as the “most authentic” version of himself, commenting that he’s leaned “really far into [his] queerness” on this record. “Wanna rock something in my own kind of way / Like it’s tailor made for me,” he sings on the title track. “Think I found someone I can get lost in / Cut from the same cloth as me.”
It’s far from groundbreaking for an artist to throw caution to the wind and lean into his true inspirations and talents, but for Lambert—whose performance ability had long since eclipsed his studio work—a change of pace was long overdue. “You try to put me in a box, make me something I’m not,” he says on the R&B-influenced “Superpower,” which sets the tone for an album about breaking free.
Velvet also undoubtedly draws inspiration from Queen, whether that was the intention or not. “Stranger You Are,” an outsider’s anthem, sounds like it could have been featuring Freddie Mercury in another life. Lambert especially shines with his latest collaboration with Nile Rodgers, “Roses,” as well as the heart-wrenching ballad “Closer to You.” Masterpieces like “Loverboy” and “Overglow” make me want to forget that Lambert’s previous attempts at mainstream pop ever existed. He has found his groove, crafting songs that would work well for both a dancefloor and a living room evening party. His R&B influences bring to mind the earlier work of Alicia Keys, while the funkier parts of the album place Lambert alongside Harry Styles as a purveyor of sounds from decades past, reimagined for a new generation.
Velvet closes with the ballad “Feel Something,” whose lyrics perhaps reference a tormented love life: “I don’t need to feel love, I just need to feel something / If it’s never enough, at least it’s better than nothing.” It could be a love song, or it could be a song about passion—about the need for fulfillment in life through art and love, not necessarily in that order. We all need to feel something in order to be inspired, to create, and to continue putting one foot in front of the other. With his fourth studio album, Adam Lambert is finally taking a step in the right direction.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Velvet: “Velvet,” “Superpower,” “Roses,” “Loverboy,” “Closer to You,” “Overglow,” and “Feel Something”