Juanes Carries a Message of Love on Latin Music’s First Visual Album

By JON PARELES

The Colombian songwriter Juanes, a superstar across Latin America, could easily have released his new album, “Mis Planes Son Amarte” (“My Plans Are to Love You”), on its own terms: as a set of a dozen gleaming, tuneful, good-natured songs about love, featuring his amiable voice and his strategically syncopated guitars. Instead, he added another layer of ambition.

“Mis Planes Son Amarte” arrives on Friday as a “visual album,” the digital heir to the movie musical and Broadway’s jukebox musicals that Beyoncé brought to the mainstream with her 2016 release, “Lemonade.” It’s the first visual album for a major Latin performer, with its 12 songs strung together in a narrative about love, time, space, magic and links between the indigenous and the extraterrestrial. On May 19, HBO Latino will show a documentary on the making of the album, “The Juanes Effect: De Canciones Y Transformaciones,” followed by a concert performance of songs from the album.

“For me it’s so important to give dignity to the concept of the album,” Juanes said Wednesday by telephone from Medellín, Colombia, where he was born.

“Everything has changed so much and everybody is consuming just songs, so the culture of the album is becoming a concept of the past. For me it was important to put a face to every song and just tell a story.”

Juanes (shortened from his full name, Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez) has deftly merged Latin and Caribbean rhythms with rock instruments. His songs have regularly zoomed to No. 1 on Spanish-language radio stations inside and outside the United States. He has been showered with 21 Latin Grammy Awards since he released his first solo album, “Fíjate Bien,” in 2000, and he won Grammy Awards for Best Latin Pop album in 2009 and 2013.

He has sung about matters of conscience as well as affairs of the heart. In 2008 and 2009, Juanes headlined concerts under the rubric Peace Without Borders, calling for cultural exchange across Latin America. A 2009 concert, in Cuba, was televised internationally but drew criticism that he was lending support to the totalitarian Castro government. In Miami, where he has lived since 2003, he drew death threats and protests before the event.

“It was a really rough time, getting there,” he recalled. “Many people were trying to put us on one or the other side of politics. But once we got there and did the songs, it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. We believe in the power of music. We just try to connect people through music. I believe that Cuba is going to change from the inside, and it’s going to take time.”

“Mis Planes Son Amarte” comes across as Juanes’s most lighthearted album. At the beginning of “Actitud” (“Attitude”), over sinewy rock guitar chords, he sings, “The news says that everything is bad/But I prefer to be more optimistic/In my hands I carry only a guitar and a good attitude.” Later in the song, his children join him to sing about the healing power of love.

His new songs concentrate on love: finding it, losing it, letting it go, carrying it to the world. “The world is crazy, if you look at who is running the world now,” Juanes said. “Everywhere, when you see what is happening, it’s a very tough moment. But I really want to concentrate on the positive side. To me music is a cure of my soul. I want people to listen to this music and to this album and just to feel better, just for a moment.”

On the visual album, Juanes plays an archaeologist turned astronaut and cosmonaut, traversing decades and taking a shaman’s ayahuasca potion to find his way back to the indigenous soul mate who haunts his dreams. The visuals give the songs a broader mission; they also, in a brief stop in 1977 during the title song, allow Juanes to wear his most outlandish disco outfit. Timelines get tangled, but romance prevails.

The album also has the first song Juanes has recorded in English, “Goodbye for Now.” After living in the United States since the late 1990s, Juanes speaks English fluently, but writing and singing in English are still a challenge, he said. Although he has recorded songs in Italian, Portuguese and German, it took five years of experimenting with English — and Jason Boyd, known for his work with Justin Bieber, to help with the lyrics — until he felt he was ready.

“It’s hard when you have to change the way your muscles work,” he said. “I don’t want to go full crossover — that’s not my plan — but I just wanted to do it someday.”

Juanes, 44, made his previous studio album, “Loco de Amor” in 2014, with the English producer Steve Lillywhite, who has worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel. For “Mis Planes Son Amarte,” he switched to a younger generation of Colombian musicians from Medellín: the hip-hop and reggaetón producers Mosty, Sky and Bull Nene.

They have written hits with J. Balvin (“Ginza”) and others, and Juanes collaborated with them on both production and songwriting — a shift for Juanes, who has written songs alone for the past decade. “They understood who I was, where I was coming from,” he said. “They were not pretending to take me to another place, I was not pretending to go to their place. We were just trying to find a place between us to do the right thing for my music. We were trying to combine the organic side and the electronic side.”

The sound of the album is both welcoming and futuristic, with programmed sounds twitching and buzzing alongside Juanes’s human presence and grooves that extrapolate from both old (disco, doo-wop) and new (cumbiareggaetón). The young producers, he said, reminded him to open up musical space, stripping away parts.

But for all the streamlined electronics and sleek hybrids, at the music’s core are sounds that Juanes grew up on: cumbia, salsa, vallenato and rural music called guasca, “the music that my parents listened to when I was a kid,” he said. “It’s something that I really enjoy — to have the opportunity to use this information, to build my crafting process and just to get to a totally different place. It’s important to know that I am close to my roots and I am using that to build something new.”

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