NAO begins her second album with a wish: “I hope you find your way.” While it’s meant as a cordial farewell to an ex, the line feels directed to herself, a cautiously hopeful plea for clarity. For the East London-based singer born Neo Jessica Joshua, the crumbling of a six-year relationship meant more than losing a lover: It meant losing certainty in a planned future. Amidst such confusion came a cosmic reassurance in the form of the Saturn Return, an astrological phenomenon based on the sixth planet’s 29-year orbit. While it offers no deus ex machina, it does provide a purported explanation for one’s turbulent late twenties, helping people understand that no passage into maturity is easy. On Saturn, NAO invites listeners into that very period of reflection, and what’s witnessed is a deeply personal journey of self-discovery.
NAO once described her style as “wonky funk,” but the singles leading up to Saturn rendered the descriptor obsolete. She now draws from a wider musical palette, aiming for the palpable sensuality of FKA twigs on “Curiosity” and trying her hand at Afrobeats on “Drive and Disconnect.” While one might be forgiven for dismissing this as mere trend-chasing, hearing the songs in context snaps everything into place. The opening three tracks, for example, trace the immediate aftermath of a breakup. Feelings of inadequacy abound in the lyrics to “Another Lifetime,” but the cinematic drops capture her loneliness more effectively. It’s the song on Saturn that’s most reminiscent of 2016’s For All We Know, and it proves to be an appropriate starting point for the new album’s narrative. “Make It Out Alive” bursts out the gate with a panicked, “How the hell am I supposed to feel?” but its varied vocal deliveries convey the thin line between pent-up anger and scared helplessness. Eventually, “If You Ever” finds NAO on the path toward personal growth, and it’s elegantly portrayed with a driving dancehall rhythm wrapped in harps, strings, and birdsong.
This short sequence lands in an interlude that describes the Saturn Return as a time of “letting go of what doesn’t serve you […] relationships, jobs, past regrets.” While For All We Know had a few voice-memo-style interludes, they weren’t nearly as thoughtful as “When Saturn Returns.” This brief pause lays out the album’s themes, but more crucially, it makes clear the distinction between NAO’s previous and current selves. The following nine songs see her embracing change, and nowhere is it more obvious than the title track’s assertive declaration of desire: “You will proceed to give me what I need.” “Saturn” is as comforting a love song as any of co-writer Daniel Caesar’s own duets, but despite the presence of guest artist Kwabs, it feels like a song about NAO and NAO alone. That it reads like it came from NAO’s diary points to her greatest achievement on Saturn: every song can shine as a standalone track, but they sound even better together.
No song is more emblematic of this intentional songwriting than “Orbit,” Saturn’s arresting centerpiece. It finds NAO at a pivotal crossroads where her past meets her future. She’s landed in another relationship, and already feels moments away from its dissolution. The second verse relives a harrowing tirade from her ex, one that finds him flipping the titular line of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” from sensual come-on to vituperative derision. But he isn’t the only one reframing language. “He released me into orbit,” NAO sings, explaining that this prior ex pushed her away. Her response is one of graceful optimism toward her new lover: “Still, I found a way to navigate to you.” She’s pressing forward from here on out. And on the ensuing tracks, like the celebratory, Thelma & Louise-inspired “Yellow of the Sun,” she holds fast to any and all well-deserved joy.
Saturn ends with “A Life Like This,” an atmospheric ballad that finds NAO feeling, above all, content. After the emotional journey of the past 45 minutes, there’s a peace radiating from its completion. “Did you ever dream of a life like this?” she sings, her voice drifting off into ethereal bliss. Curiously, she makes reference to Bon Iver’s “Michicant,” a song she performed with the group at Coachella last year in a collaboration she’s called a “career highlight.” In explicitly referencing that song—one that depicts a love lost and its lingering effects—NAO stresses the importance of music as a conduit for healing. On Saturn, she accomplishes the same thing: In relaying her story of heartbreak, she provides encouragement for anyone listening, demonstrating that survival is possible.