After a couple of unsettled, though commercially successful albums, Abrar-ul-Haq's latest album "Naara Sada Ishq Aye" is remarkably close to being one of his greatest. Whereas his best albums have endeared themselves to the listener with wit and sprightly bhangra beats, Abrar lately had struggled with the onset of maturity and personal tragedy. Resultantly, his recent albums, notwithstanding the hit commercial numbers, seemed to moving towards traditional folk and generally more sober numbers. The latter often were uninspired and seemed to imbalance each album: Billo seemed to have gotten the blues. However, Abrar with his latest shot finally seems to have gotten his A-game together and turned in an album of quite consistent brilliance, be it singing the bhangra crowdpleasers or the more meaningful downtempo numbers. With a market recently swamped by a slew of underwhelming albums from established artists (some good singles, effective videos, and a lot of filler), Abrar is possibly the only one of the few who manages to retain some of his luster, if not add to it.
The album is top heavy with compelling commercial songs: each is toe-tapping in its bhangra way and yet loaded with wit. Domesticity and fatherhood seems to have brought the humor and indeed salaciousness back in Abrar. Tongue in cheek bhangra rules: The most outstanding of the numbers is "Parmeen", his most hilarious song in ages (Challenging Michael Jackson: Micheal Jackson Ik Wari Aya Narowaal Si/ Rang Uda Chita Si Te Lambe Lambe Waal Si/Sade Naal Hoya Uda Music Muqabla/ Bhangre Pua Ke Apa Dus Dita Gavla).
More memorably, it is a song to add to the catalog of "Billo" and "Preeto" of days yore. Coupled with pristine production and dance friendly beat, the song is a winner, starting with a faux English qawwali bit and then launching into its lafontar Punjabi heart. Reportedly it has already resulted in several neighbourhood disputes in the street of real-life Parmeens/ Parveens.
Similarly, "Jutt" (No iffs and no Butts/ only Jutt) is an instant classic: it revisits the "Jutt" of "Bay Ja Cycle Tay". Lyrically the Poor Jutt remains embroiled in his legal problems still (Jiddo'n Hoya Na Koi Judge Kolo'n Faisla/ Katchehri Aapay Laa Lai Jatt Nay) this time around though Mr. Jutt is fleshed out more and seems to be wrestling with his nature (Jatt Da Hay Style Puraana/ Paawain Sooli Charhna Pay Jaey/ Keeta Qoll Qaraar Nibhaana) and indeed the onset of modernity (Lorr Paway Tay Fait Vee Karda Aey/ Internet Tay Chat Vee Karda Aey). He even seems to be developing a taste for public service: (Shehar Dee Corruption Jatt Nay Mukaani Aey/ Putt Sutthni Aey Paawai'n Kinni Vee Purani Aey/ Qabzay Qubzay Rehn Nai Dainay/ Jaggay Tax Vee Lain Nai Dainay). Through these two song mostly sets out his high standard bhangra stall.
The title song "Naara Sada Ishq Aye (Islamabad)" which has already been released as the first video in contrast is middling: it is commercial but not the best song on the album. The song is interesting in that it works as a political satire of bureaucracy on one level, and on the more trite level it tells the story of how in Abrarland the government has decided to impose a tax on beauty (through a fax from Islamabad, no less). Abrar declares himself the leader of the resistance and agitates for removal of said tax. Ultimately, the song works best as a regular rumpshaker. It would have been a better song had it not recycled vocal lines from "Bay Ja Cycle Tay". "Run Baabay Dee", similarly is rollicking in the best tradition of "Kuriyan Lahore Diyan" and "Boliyan" but is also somewhat lesser than those masterful songs, perhaps because it is comparatively restrained.
While some songs are generally excellent, there are certain missteps on the album as well: just as Abrar's horizons seem to have broadened with international exposure, he has also tried to broaden his pallete. These unfortunately have resulted in the weaker tracks on the album. The album opener "Rano" for example is an attempt at a UK Bhangra/desi R'n'B song that never really manages to gel despite its pristine production. The ballad "Saanson Mein" is worse. Whereas his previous ballads ranged from excellent ("December") to tolerable, this one is just laden with horrible lyrics and weak unwieldy melody. A track to skip over.
In contrast, in terms of singing, "Mela" is rather more soulful as it is placed squarely in the folk tradition. It however is lyrically in marked contrast to the Mela in "Kuriyan Lahore Diyan". In fact, it appears metaphorical and metaphysical. What starts off a song about a family trip to the fair in the end reveals itself to be an existential song about mortality and morality. The song has great depth and is in fact indicative of the generally more sober vibe of the second half of the album.
For the second half of the album, the lascivousness is put away and Abrar is generally more sober and compelling. He opens up his heart – he lost his parents a while back – with "Maan". A harrowing number, musically retro in the best tradition of Alam Lohar, it is one of the most emotionally naked songs released in recent memory, a son's ode to a dead mother. What could have been a huge misstep is an honest statement of intent and unbearably affecting number.
Lyrically, throughout the album Abrar is extremely insightful and the songs are almost always well-observed: this places him a step or two ahead of all other local stars who if they ever venture beyond love songs, talk in vague generalities and have little or anything original to say. Abrar manages to say a lot even when he is being crass: Point in case is the song "Patlo Jai" with stunning lyrics, which is a down tempo traditional bhangra with a twist. It is perhaps the first desi songs to deal with anorexia and the dieting culture (Modeling Pai Kardi Ae Modeling/ Doctor Ne Ditti Aenno Warning/ O Je Tu Dyeting Na Chaddi Te Tu Marjayen Gi, Turdi Phirdi Case Bai Labdi Ai, Market Jad Jandi Ae, Market/ Diet Khajooran Diet Pakorre Mangdi Ae). Not only is it utterly scathing, it is lyrically incisive. It is livened up by the backing vocals and is really well-observed. As with this and other songs, the album has a lot of thaith Punjabi. That remains a part of its charm: The lyrics are actually worth listening to and figuring out. The joy of finally figuring out what exactly Abrar was saying is something to experience.
The album closer is a sober reading of "Alif Allah", the traditional number by Sultan Bahu: it reveals Abrar in strong voice and singing really well. The introductory monologue is however self indulgent and a tad embarrassing. This soulful reading brings a sprightly album to a rather unusual and understated end.
Overall, the album is impressively produced with nary a note out of place. This is even more impressive considering the range of the bhangra and pop substyles attempted. The album perhaps to its detriment is a tad on the short side with only 10 songs on offer. Nevertheless, the album has been well marketed by Geo Network & Telenor but manages to remain more than mere product by dint of being witty, knowingly commercial and in parts truly soulful. Ultimately, "Naara Sada Ishq Aye" as an album succeeds because it achieves the rarest of things for Pakistani pop music to achieve: artistic growth and expression. Resultantly, it reveals that despite the onset of respectability and maturity, Abrar remains one artist who does not appear ready to settle down or lose his wit. Thank goodness for that.Mohammad A. Qayyum