It had been five years since Dominican singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra last released a studio album: that is until May 31st, when the titan of bachata and merengue would unveil his latest LP, Literal. Guerra’s 11-track LP traverses genres beyond his typical repertoire, including salsa, son and even electronic — flaunting the 61-year-old’s boundary-pushing approach to Caribbean roots music.
Whereas 2019’s other bachata opus, Romeo Santos’ Utopia, is a nostalgic homage to the genre’s history and many of its pioneers, the veteran Guerra sidesteps some of bachata’s traditional elements and embraces more experimentation. As with previous releases, like 1990’s Bachata Rosa or 1998’s Ni Es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual, Luis’ calling card is to venture further out to sea than other bachata players; and for the most part, on Literal, he executes this quite effectively. Opener and lead single “Kitipun” opens with grandiose glam-rock synths, and even includes some unexpected sing-rapping from Juan Luis. Elsewhere, the artist flaunts his classical Berklee training in lively horn breaks and jazzy compositions. Yet one of the few missteps Guerra makes is the rogue airhorn sample on electro-son number “Son a Mamá” — a call to embrace God and spirituality, themes that have characterized Juan Luis’ albums in the last few years.
Lyrically, Literal is sunny and straightforward, gushing with love-struck rhymes and references to quotidian life in the Dominican Republic and its diaspora. With a goofy, hip-hop-via-Broadway affectation, he conjures a scene of a perro callejero, or street dog roaming the streets on “Cantando Bachata.” Meanwhile, “Má Pa’lante Vive Gente” is a heartfelt, salsa pick-me-up about believing in the ultimate good of humanity — one that might lift the spirits of any listener perturbed by these uncertain political times. Still, Literal sees Juan Luis keep it light on the socially-minded lyrics that defined his career; save for the delicate guitar ballad, “No Tiene Madre,” a seething condemnation of materialism and consumer culture. “You judge by the law that promulgates money/And you live on earth as if there were no sky,” he sings bitterly.
But any longtime Juan Luis fan knows that for all the worldly observations he’s made in song, he’s just as skilled at delivering carefree, catchy meditations on joy; or on the curative powers of a simple kiss; or what it means to love someone “more than rice and beans.” It’s in the most fleeting little details that Literal shines brightest.