A friend in Brazil had told me that Ce, the newest album from Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso, was a rock record, but I was still pretty shocked the first time I heard it. Though Veloso has frequently accessed rock idioms over the past four decades–the late-60s tropicalia albums that made him famous, for instance, are full of psychedelic guitar lines and whimsical pop arrangements reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper’s–it’s never been possible to refer to his music as rock, period. But the raw, stripped-down Ce is a different story. It’s Veloso’s liquid voice and plucked acoustic guitar plus standard rock instrumentation and nothing else. Dry, crisp, and minimal, the backing tracks wouldn’t sound out of place on college radio; the simple, straightforward arrangements are, according to Veloso, the product of just “a few minutes” of rehearsal per tune. The album was even recorded directly to two-inch tape and mixed without Pro Tools.

At first I wondered why Veloso had bothered to tap into this vein at such a late date. But by the end of my first listen through Ce I’d forgotten all about that in my astonishment at his vocal performance. He sings just like he does on the sophisticated, self-consciously adult albums he’s been making since the late 80s, where the music is rooted in samba and bossa nova and borrows freely from all over the world. His playful, elliptical lyrics still strive for the gravity of poetry, and his singing is still pure and direct, without the swaggering, shouting, or chest beating another vocalist might’ve used to complement the aggressive arrangements. And the juxtaposition is magic.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from his clear, youthful tone and the easy flexibility of his voice, Veloso is 64. The new record was produced by two men in their 30s: Veloso guitarist Pedro Sa, one of Brazil’s most original instrumentalists, and Caetano’s son Moreno, who’s made his mark in the related bands Moreno + 2 and Domenico + 2. Sa plays electric guitar, joined by twentysomethings Marcelo Callado on drums and Ricardo Dias Gomes on bass and electric piano. But the elder Veloso wrote the dozen tunes alone on acoustic guitar–the first time he’s been solely responsible for all the material on an album. There are virtually no references to Brazilian musical styles in the finished versions, apart from the cadences and rhythms of his vocals, but he doesn’t come off as desperate or out of place as he finds his way into the arrangements. Instead he sounds refreshed, focused, and vital.

Not only does Veloso make no effort to sound like one of the kids, he at times seems to be drawing attention to his age. On “Homem” (written, like everything here, in Portuguese), he sings, “I am a man / Loose skin over muscle / I am a man / Thick hair in my nose,” then insists that the only thing he’s jealous of in women is the capacity for multiple orgasms. Rather than avert his eyes from the decline of his body and occupy himself with the abstract and philosophical, he seems almost stubbornly committed to the corporeal–on song after song he celebrates the passions, sexual and otherwise, and repeatedly invokes blood, mucus, semen, and the other fluids that are part of life’s messy beauty.

In “Um Sonho” he poeticizes the simple act of fucking with lines like “Your incision, my mallet” and “All my dew / Falls on you.” “Porque?” has only three lines, and Veloso repeats the first, “I’m coming,” over and over in a trembling, urgent voice–the Portuguese phrase is heavier on consonants, and the way he emphasizes them makes it sound like his mouth is tensing. It seems he’s on the edge of an orgasm, but the rest of the lyrics (“And you, how can you keep inside yourself / Why don’t you come too?”) add a bit of frustration and regret to the moment. Veloso toys with the sound of his voice on “Rocks” as well, dispensing with the fluid, romantic tones of sung Portuguese for a harsh, choppy, tactile delivery. Veloso knows how to say rocks in English, but here he sticks to the Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation of r and gets something that sounds like “hocks.” When he rips into the final chorus of “rata comigo demais” (the tail end of a slang phrase that translates loosely as “you were too much the cunt with me”), he pushes his vibrato into overdrive, suggesting the otherworldly focus of an Indian dhrupad singer.

While Veloso’s singing is extraordinary, it isn’t any more extraordinary than usual, and the band’s contributions, while solid, wouldn’t be anything special by themselves. Together, though, they create a rare kind of power. Nothing here will be novel to any sophisticated listener, but Veloso is treading ground he hasn’t covered before, and that makes the record a revelation. The willingness to forge into new territory, from disco to folk to cool jazz, has long been one of the qualities that make him such a singular talent, and Ce proves that old age hasn’t dimmed his desire to explore.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fernanda Negrini.