The R&B singer Avant was perhaps under-appreciated during his hit-making years in the late Nineties and early 2000s. While he amassed five Top 40 singles, at a time when so many R&B stars were enjoying major commercial success, Avant’s accomplishments were partially buried by the deluge of Usher and Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige and so many more. Still, he quietly churned out a series of impressive singles that ranged from regretful and vindictive (“Separated”) to generous and sweeping (“My First Love”), from single-mindedly lusty (“Read Your Mind”) to appealingly clock-obsessed (“4 Minutes”).
Avant has some of his old gifts intact — a light but piercing tone, an ear for rich backing vocal arrangements and spacious, gleaming production, an appreciation for hooks that build on verses, rather than just re-stating them — on Can We Fall in Love, his first new album in five years. The standout is “Live a Lie,” which reaches back to the guitar-centric ballads that ruled R&B when Avant was starting out. He sings about a man crumpling under the weight of a guilty conscience: “I’ve been holding it down as long as I can… you’ve been faking your love, it’s burning you up/How long can we live a lie?”
As he ratchets up the tension in the lyrics, he refuses to do the same with the instrumentation, which simmers but never erupts. The backbone of the track is a snaking, finger-picked guitar riff; Avant adds snaps, bright piano, and a few notes from a resonant yet taciturn bass, but everything stays cool and restrained. Even as the protagonist teeters, inching towards a breakdown, the song structure remains impeccable.