Tanika Charles's Voice Is the Leading Light of 'Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly'

BY Alan RantaPublished Apr 7, 2022

Tanika Charles was in the process of taking her career to the next level when the pandemic cancelled everything. She tasted success with her 2016 debut Soul Run and 2019 follow-up The Gumption; both were nominated for Juno awards and long-listed by the Polaris Music Prize. Charles had planned a significant tour to give The Gumption a well-deserved victory lap and solidify her status as one of Canada's all-time greatest soul divas when suddenly there was nothing.
Charles has now emerged with her third studio album, Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly. Crafting songs with regular collaborators like Robert Bolton, who helped write her first two albums, she forged new connections amidst the otherwise isolating lockdowns, exploring new contexts for her powerful yet elegant voice.

The album's theme is expressed in the poetry of its rather Canadian bilingual title. A butterfly of the night, particularly when articulated in the silkiness of its original French, is a beautiful way of referring to a moth. Generally overlooked insects, moths tend to unassumingly blend into the background until they bump into your porch light. Yet, if people knew them as night butterflies instead, perhaps they'd get a smidge more shine.
To be clear, Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly is not a concept album about moths. Most of its lyrics speak to the blossoming, failing and endurance of love. The concept of not taking things (or people) for granted is clearly expressed in the dreamy slow jam "Don't Be So Entitled." Charles warns, "you don't own what you can't see" in one of those perfectly composed can't-believe-it's-not Motown moments, with backing singers echoing the falling melody of her plaintive vocals. If the right person hears this song at the right time, it could save relationships.
Although the lyrics of "Hold Me (Like a Grudge)" speak of being confined in a relationship, Charles sounds freer in the rawer setting. Her commanding voice punches through the funky instrumental, a gently simmering boom-bap beat accented by jazzy guitar and comforting cooing. "Million Ways" is so clean that it ends up sliding by fairly easily, yet it feels like the whole world stops when Charles demands "hold on" in the gripping hook of "Hold Me (Like a Grudge)."
A few tracks on Papillon de Nuit hit that blessed throwback note. "Rent Free" could easily be a Daptone Records single, with Charles sounding as epic as Sharon Jones as she sings of a bad ex-partner who still lives rent-free in her memories. Closing the album on a nearly opposite note, "Honey Baby" is an old school duet with Khari McClelland lifted up by jaunty, off-key piano, crisp drums and psychedelic soul guitar, culminating with a string of delightful food innuendo pillow talk.
Charles has found new strength in her perceptive ability to find the right settings for her voice, and that hits home on the title track. On "Papillon de Nuit," she sings that she isn't lost, she's breaking ground, and that sure is what it looks like from over here. There's no denying her metamorphosis into something greater on "Different Morning." Her dreamy vocals and the life-affirming verse from DijahSB perfectly meld with the addictive afterparty essence of the instrumental. They rock a grooving beat with funky bass guitar, dreamy horns and woozy electric piano, with a touch of organic percussion brilliantly balancing the 808 plinks.

Regardless of how many nominations it receives or how the industry votes, Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly is already a winner.
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