Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is NAO’s Saturn.
Despite being able to vote at 18, drink at 21 and rent a car at 25, astrology posits that you are not truly an adult until Saturn returns to the place in the night sky it was when you were born. This process generally takes about 29.5 years, so you’ll be either 29 or 30 (though some charts consider some time between ages 27 and 32 as when your Saturn return happens) before you truly leave the vestiges of childhood behind and become the “adult” you were always meant to be. NAO, a West London singer with a pliable voice who made 2016’s superlative For All We Know, had her Saturn return while she was recording her sophomore album, titled, appropriately, Saturn. A song cycle about waking up and trying to assess how you want to live the next 29 years of your life — which is what a Saturn return is about, really — Saturn is concerned with change; change in lovers, changing how you live your life and, most importantly, change in yourself.
NAO’s voice is the central star of all her songs and albums, as it can float between being as soft as cotton candy and as powerful as an afternoon thunderstorm when she wants it to. It feels almost a disservice to Saturn to say it comes down to just NAO’s voice, but she has an amazing voice that can growl, howl, soar and ascend to astral planes that you can hear, and some that you can’t. Saturn is an album that finally showcases that voice in all of its complexity; the shifts in styles and the crevices her voice fills here are consistently rewarding and thrilling.
A breakup — or a series of them — hangs like an icy ring around the outside of Saturn, from one that felt like a house fire you narrowly escaped (“Make It Out Alive”) to one that felt like it was life-defining (“Another Lifetime”). NAO wishes a former love was more like a John Coltrane album (“Love Supreme”), and that someone who left her would make like a constellation and come back around again (“Saturn”). These are songs of imminently catchy heartbreak and emotional searching; NAO can go from funky come-ons (“Gabriel”) to spaced-out ballads (“Orbit” and “Don’t Change”), to Prince-like workouts (“Yellow Of The Sun”), and all points between. The two duets (“Saturn” with Kwabs and “Make It Out Alive” with SiR) make a strong case for the next NAO album being a modern Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway. Stylistically, Saturn covers even more ground than the sometimes-sprawling For All We Know. Saturn feels like the widescreen epic NAO has been capable of all along, an album that delivers on all the promise she had when she first debuted a couple years ago.
Being an adult is a sometimes incomprehensible experience; nothing ever makes it easy and most of it makes no sense. All you can really do is try to dissect your mistakes, and hope you live better next year than you did the year previous. Saturn is this in album form: an ode to the things that happened before, a celebration of the present resetting and the joy of what’s to come.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.