There is a moment on the new song “Orbit,” by NAO, that is both entirely characteristic of its surrounding album and yet totally bonkers. On it, one of several lovelorn tracks on the British singer-songwriter-producer’s sophomore album Saturn, NAO sings what is at once an ode to lost love and one to a new prospect. Her jazzy accompaniment at the song’s start is little more than a liquid-sounding electric guitar, her lyrics reference to past R&B by either Mary J. Blige or Usher or both (“You remind me of a love that I once knew”) and then turn cosmic (“He released me into orbit/Still I found a way to navigate to you”).
And then, for the second verse, her voice pitches all the way up unnaturally so that she sounds like an alien in an ’80s track (see “Attack of the Name Game” or “Jam On It”). Or maybe it’s a reference to Prince’s helium-voiced alter ego, Camille. Regardless, her altered voice settles into a singsongy flow that’s more rapping than singing before returning to the soulful mourning of the chorus. Before the song ends, it passes through a house-y, four-on-the-floor bridge, into a conclusion in which NAO’s ad-libbing voice hits a buttery low, as well as a high note that sounds ripped right out of Deniece Williams’s catalog.
The overall effect is stunning and typically out of this world on an album loosely based on the astrological idea of Saturn return, which is said to occur in one’s life around age 29 or 30, marking the passage into adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. (NAO is 30, according to Wikipedia.) These are love songs sprinkled with stardust. “I feel you around me like Venus and Mars,” NAO sings to her duet partner Kwabs on the piano ballad “Venus.” A joyride that leads to a triumphant Thelma and Louise-esque car jump into a canyon has her “flying through the yellow of the sun.” On “If You Ever,” there’s a stairway to heaven to which she beckons her object of desire.
All of this, on top of the album’s keen sense of space. NAO’s voice bounces off walls and echoes into the void. She is frequently accompanied by just a handful of sounds, giving her plenty of room to roam with melisma. The quality of her voice falls somewhere between the ultra-realness of Fantasia and I-can’t-believe-it’s-realness of AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis. Even when NAO isn’t pitched up, she sounds like it until she drops an octave or two below her usual fluttering chirp and it sounds like she’s performing a goddamn magic trick.
It’s all massively welcoming, a low-gravity leap forward for a singer who’s already displayed a considerable aptitude for bending R&B’s space-time continuum so that she often sounds traditional and futurist at once (and sometimes all it takes for her to sound space-age is a few layers of her otherworldly vocals). The fuel in NAO’s rocket is hope. Saturn is an album that draws a line between being heartbroken and broken. There’s not a cynical note here, as the album weaves through several different styles in the R&B universe from “Love Supreme,” which swings like new jack and keeps time with a go-go cowbell, to the sex jam “Curiosity,” out of which synths ooze.
The highlight “If You Ever” functions as well as “Orbit” in summing up this album’s greatness. With a brisk tropical house stomp (but no tired wordless vocalizations standing in for the hook), NAO sends an invitation to either a love that has passed or maybe never showed up in the first place. There’s a delicious bit of hang time in the arrangement, such a simple but effective choice that comes by way of a brief pause in the choir-sung call section of the chorus (“If you ever change your... mind,” it starts, letting the last word lag just slightly behind the beat). In response, a pared down but more direct vocal of NAO’s pleads: “Would you fly, would you fly with me?... Change your mind, change your mind for me... If you find, if you find you ever change your mind/Would you like to go, like to go with me?” Here, NAO isn’t merely telling of why she should get a shot; she’s showing why in this warm embrace of a song. The entire experience of Saturn is so indefatigably pleasant, NAO makes it practically impossible to rebuff the invitation to fly with her.