Seal (Sire/Warner Bros.)

By Allen Howie

It's been nearly three years since British-born Sealhenry Samuel, a.k.a. Seal, cracked the U.S. Top Ten with the hypnotically catchy social commentary of "Crazy" from his self-titled debut. His follow-up, also entitled simply Seal, reunites the singer with producer Trevor Horn, along with many of the musicians from that first outing. The resulting effort builds on the musically rich foundation laid by its eclectic predecessor, and finds Seal, whose voice falls somewhere between Sly Stone and Sting, with a little Elvis Costello thrown in for good measure, pushing himself both vocally and creatively.

The new record kicks off with the bottom-heavy trance of "Bring It On." Listen through headphones, and delicate guitar lines rise out of the swirling mix, while Seal's voice winds through the melody. "Prayer for the Dying" offers a series of verses whose sober moodiness erupts repeatedly into the buoyant optimism of the chorus, trading despair for hope.

The sleepy reflection of "Dreaming in Metaphors" recalls Peter Gabriel, both vocally and in the power of its imagery, while the lovely chamber pop of "Don't Cry" allows Seal's Nigerian/Brazilian heritage and British sensibilities to intermingle.

"Fast Changes" is a perfect example of Seal's diverse approach, shifting from languid, jazzy phrasing and a spare arrangement to a denser pop melody, then drifting easily back and forth, until the two become one. In similar fashion, "Kiss From a Rose" slips from cascading Beach Boys harmonies to spare folk to lush pop ballad. Through all these changes, Seal's voice, itself a marvelous, malleable instrument, remains the unifying element, drawing influences and accents together until they sound as if they were always intended to be heard side by side.

The soulful surge of "People Asking Why" makes it a natural for Top Forty airplay, while the subdued street rhythms of "Newborn Friend" practically beg to be heard from an open windows on a steamy summer evening. The insistent pulse of "If I Could" searches for common ground, then finds it in a potent duet with Prince's favorite singer, Joni Mitchell.

In "I'm Alive," Seal wraps that marvel of a voice around a snaky dancefloor groove that metamorphoses into a sweeping, near-epic reprise of "Bring It On" to close the album.

Sadly, the difficulty for Seal may lie in finding an audience willing to step out of its box and open its ears to music that crosses all kinds of borders. If you're up for just such a musical adventure, Seal promises to give you a ride to remember.