As Miguel Pimentel evolved from behind-the-scenes hitmaker to legitimate star, his use of guitar served as a sturdy narrative peg. Having demonstrated his facility as both feature and lead over the last few years, it’s easier to appreciate the axe (whether deployed by him, his longtime collaborator Happy Perez, or a couple hired hands) for its timbral qualities. In Miguel’s hands, it’s a scuffing agent, a charcoal pencil setting his ecstacy in relief. Even as the world falls around him on the politically haunted War & Leisure, he’s still a pleasure seeker nonpareil. God is here, of course, but Miguel’s also tugging the thread between carnality and catastrophe. “When the gavel hit the stand,” he sang on a bonus cut from 2015’s Wildheart, “I’m damned to loving you.” He’s still scouting this territory; still looking for the intersection of sex drive and death drive.
“Got a mind full of TNT/Need a lunatic just like me” is the first couplet on leadoff track “Criminal”. Miguel sings it over a sustained strum, which drifts placidly upward, then switches back on itself: despite references to Columbine, 9/11 and the California code for involuntary confinement, he’s untroubled. The crisply flanged “Banana Clip” finds Miguel driving his love around, an M16 at the ready, “Korean missiles in the sky”. “It’s like I’m trigger happy,” he marvels, before tearing off some mirthless laughter. He raises the stakes on the stunning infidelity narrative “City of Angels”: fighter jets battle spacecraft while he’s holed up with a sidepiece, ignoring his girl’s texts. Toms boom over blunted guitar fuzz; the story ends with the singer – the last man alive in Los Angeles – scouring the wreckage for his lover.
For all this rendered chaos, Miguel’s resisted calling this his “woke” album. (As the son of a Mexican immigrant and a black woman, it’s hard to imagine what kind of awakening he could possibly undertake.) Nevertheless, what’s striking about War & Leisure is the degree to which he’s trailed by – and internalizes – destruction. The Raphael Saadiq co-write “Wolf” makes ravaging its central concern: clipped throwback-soul arpeggios alternate with drum detonations, while Miguel swallows his hoary metaphor (“you say you want it big and bad, baby”) whole. He’s joined for a moment by the light-stepping R&B newcomer Quiñ; you can’t hear her over the growls of his stomach. On the triumphal fade of “Sky Walker,” he keeps begging his friends to fight the cousin of death; guest Travis Scott passes a cup to his girl as he mentions his near-overdose.
But the most audacious meeting of Eros and Ares occurs on penultimate track “Anointed”. Guitars scrape like nails on a back; hisses mimic the steady intake of breath. “Come to me,” Miguel moans, “I’m your rod/Death and resurrection”. He and his lover assume new roles with dizzying speed: they are supplicants and priests and deities, they are infirm and renewed. On the squelchfunk jam “Told You So,” he croons that “every pleasure you taste has its price,” but for four slow-burning minutes, “Anointed” gleefully pays the cost.
In lesser hands, all this weight could feel leaden. But Miguel remains a craftsman, and leisure gets its due. “Pineapple Skies” (the closest thing the album has to a sure hit) is a windswept devotional in the “Adorn” mode, right down to the whoops. The high-stepping dance-rock cut “Caramelo Duro” (featuring newly-minted Grammy nominee Kali Uchis) is a bilingual disco built with sugar walls. And though J. Cole’s feature on the D’Angelo pastiche “Come Through and Chill” references NFL player protests and murderous cops, it’s in service of inviting someone over to clear his mind. It’s only on the closer “Now” – a spare, deliberate power ballad until its thumping final third – that the outside world fights Miguel to a draw. He starts by addressing the “CEO of the free world”; as if realizing the futility of the effort, he turns his eye to us. “We can work together,” he pleads, “We only suffer what we allow”. He mentions Flint and Puerto Rico, Standing Rock and Houston; the emotion strains him, and you can hear Marvin every time he rocks back on his heels. But if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that searching for better angels over the shoulders of the gods of war is an asymmetrical tactic. Miguel’s personal quest for peace resonates loudest.