In 1978, the recently divorced Marvin Gaye unleashed Here, My Dear, still held by many as the ultimate musical document of a bitter breakup. It has taken more than 35 years, but at last, that album's spiritual antipole has arrived — courtesy of one of Gaye's most famous admirers.
Robin Thicke's Paula (* * * out of four), out today, shares its name (as you've no doubt heard) with Thicke's gorgeous estranged wife, surname Patton. The actress and the pop/R&B star, former teenage sweethearts with a young son, announced their separation in February, after a year in which Thicke enjoyed a seemingly unstoppable No. 1 single, posed with nude models in an accompanying video and shared the MTV Video Music Awards stage with a twerking Miley Cyrus.
FIRST LISTEN: Hear Robin Thicke's 'Paula' at usatoday.com
What actually happened between Thicke and Patton, and where they stand now, is nobody's business but theirs — though Thicke provides plenty of fodder for speculation here. Which young woman (or women) or what flights of fancy inspired the darkly throbbing Whatever I Want, or the swaggering Love Can Grow Back, or the self-mocking Something Bad?
What seems clear is that Thicke is, well, sorry, and determined to set things right. The funky but frantic Too Little Too Late and You're My Fantasy border on groveling. "I don't know how you do it ... Trying to be a mother, earner, lady and a star," Thicke coos on the latter, over a gently pulsing groove and delicate acoustic guitar. "I understand right now you need some space and time," he adds.
Yet Paula also reminds us what a fluid and expressive singer Thicke can be. The album is more texturally and emotionally varied and melody-focused than last year's Blurred Lines, with arrangements that nod heavily to old-school soul. Piquant female backing vocals pop up on various tracks, among them Black Tar Cloud and Lock the Door, appeals to women who could be messed up or just fed up.
Such accounts may be troubling in themselves, but it's safe to assume that Thicke didn't intend Paula as a documentary — or a manifesto, heaven help us, on the opposite sex. In the end, the album tells us more about its creator, who seems plenty aware that he's got his own issues to sort through.