Freudian, the full-length debut from Toronto’s Daniel Caesar, has a certain old-school sensibility. The production is relatively muted, favoring pianos, lowkey rhythm guitars, and simple synthesizers, diverging from the slurry moodiness that defines the hip-hop and R&B that has characterized the Toronto scene (see: Drake, dvsn, Jazz Cartier). While there are elements of modern R&B, there’s nothing here that would play in a club, or at a pregame before a club. Freudian is warm, analog, like an old record coming through vintage speakers. It’s evident from the album’s opener, “Get You”.
A funky guitar line eases the prechorus into the real thing – “Who would’ve thought I’d get you?”, Caesar sings over the sparest bass line possible, shaded gently by muted guitar plucks and a kick-snare combo. That’s the environment created across most of Freudian – a traditional R&B-soul instrumental hollowed out to better highlight Caesar’s buttery vocals, with maybe a wavy, washed-out synth riff poking up every few minutes. Think ultra-conservative Kaytranada on the keys.
That formula works well, for the most part, because Caesar’s voice is captivating enough to fill the minimalist instrumentals. “Blessed”, for example, is just Caesar and a piano. It’s also possibly the best ballad of the year. It’s tender, and it’s soulful, and it’s evocative. “Yes, I’m a mess / But I’m blessed to be stuck with you / Sometimes it gets unhealthy / We can’t be by ourselves, we / We’ll always need each other,” is dripping with sap, but kudos to Caesar – he sells it.
As you can imagine on an album so gooey, there are moments that tread into full-blown cornball territory. On “Best Part”, Caesar sings “When we wake up / And then we make love / It makes me feel so nice,” which is pretty indefensible. It’s a different kind of corny when on “Hold Me Down” he sings “Pussy so good it sets me on fire / I leave myself, I elevate higher”. Still, he’s so into his role as Lothario, without a hint of self-deprecation, he sells it more often than not. The golden voice doesn’t hurt, either.
And that’s really Freudian’s unique value. There’s been a scarcity of traditional, simple R&B love songs in the mainstream recently. Caesar taps into that powerful core while adding just enough sonic variety with a modern production kit.
Calling the instrumentation modest and the production muted is not to say the production is lacking – call it utilitarian instead. Take “Loose”: it sounds like a morning in Technicolor, almost cartoonish in the warble of the synthesizers. The song breaks off halfway through, and suddenly Caesar’s voice is coming through the other end of a phone, singing into a can, and only lone piano is there.
The harmonies on the first verse of “Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)” are an early highlight of the album, and just when the song reaches the point of being potentially cloying, the funky breakdown into the song’s second act digs into the previously-abandoned low end. “We Find Love” abandons the notion of “undertones” and embraces full-blown traditional gospel, earnest enough to make Chance the Rapper blush.
And while Freudian feels somewhat lacking in its narrative themes (heartbreak, love lost, etc.), “Transform,” the shining jewel of the record, adds some context. The introduction is a fascinating resignation to personal nature: “If a leopard never changes its spots / How can I change what I’ve got? / Transform, transform, transform, transform / We don’t punish the tiger for catching its prey / So how am I the one to blame? / If it’s in my nature / Transform, transform, transform, transform.”
The interplay between Charlotte Day Wilson and Caesar is top-notch, as their verses mesh better than those of any other disappointing feature on the album. They also take turns handling the chorus: “It’s never over / Until life ends.”
Those lines don’t entirely excuse the thematic redundancy of the album, but it does hint that Caeser has the ability to play with an idea bigger than breakups. A tight narrative thread is really the greatest absence on the record, and it’s something that plenty of great artists don’t harness on a debut.
The big picture on Freudian? Caeser can’t change his nature, and his love can’t change hers, so they’ll just keep cycling through love and failure forever. That doesn’t bode well for Caesar, but it does make for a highly replayable, praisable, soulful debut.
Highlights: Get You, Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song), Blessed, Transform