It has been five years since Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40 issued 2014's Todo Tiene Su Hora. That record claimed the top spot on the Tropical and Top Latin Albums charts, led by its inimitable, smash hit single, the doo wop-cum-bachata track "Tu Besos." Literal marks Guerra's 16th studio outing. He and the band dig deep into diverse rhythms (as is typical), but also elucidate a rainbow assortment of carefully crafted songs that celebrate life on its own terms with adventurous harmonic and melodic invention, lush, pillowy textures, and fluid dynamics. Their optimism is a sharp contrast to the political and social justice issues so prevalent on some of his earlier recordings. Co-produced by Guerra with longtime associate, multi-instrumentalist, and engineer Janina Rosado, Literal naturally hosts bachata and merengue, though they are far from the only rhythms engaged here. Opener and first single "Kitipun" (whose Instagram-styled video garnered over eight million views during its first month) is a sweet and sultry exercise in breezy romantic bachata, with production twists that evoke soulful samba (à la Tim Maia), and the pop-jazz of Michael Franks, Steely Dan, and Ed Motta. By contrast, "Lámpara Pa' Mis Pies" is tropical carnival dance music (and a love song to Guerra's wife), a merengue with group-chanted choruses that touch on South African township jive and Nigerian highlife. "Cantando Bachata" flirts with '60s rock and '80s funk in its backbeat as slippery, infectious bachata rhythms embrace them both amid gorgeous stacked vocal harmonies and swinging R&B horns. No tropical album would be complete without salsa, and Literal offers "Má Pa' Lante Vive Gente," driven by percussive montunos, achingly beautiful backing vocals, and an expansive horn chart. Another highlight is "Son a Mamá" with its muted mariachi trumpet, decoratively charted horns, passionately chanted choral vocals, and bubbling bongos, congas, and timbales. All serve to buoy Guerra's effortlessly smooth romantic tenor. "I Love You More" is a celebratory merengue that would be equally at home during carnival -- its punchy rhythms, humid vallenato horns, and the call-and-response vocals between Guerra and his chorus of backing singers make this a crowd pleaser. (Check the crazy, speedy cumbia and salsa rhythms entwined with bachata under the main beats.) "Me Preguntas" is a searing ballad melding bachata and bolero, and Guerra's vocal ripples with empathy and desire. "El Primer Baile" is worthy of its translation as "the first dance." Its structure is panoramic: It melds jazz, bachata, pop, and smooth Latin soul. Its lyric, like those in many other songs found here, affirm and encourage everyday life even during dark and confusing times. As if to call to a close the album's celebration to rest, closer "Merengue de Cuna" is a gorgeous lullaby that features only Guerra's voice and acoustic guitar offering empathy and unconditional love. Literal bears the hallmarks of Guerra's sophisticated artistry, but he and 440 render them with abundant tenderness, intimacy, and joy here. Released at the start of Latin American and U.S. tours, Literal is an unabashedly romantic yet poetically poignant summertime record. Brilliant.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek