Noel Torres first made his name singing good songs about bad people. His corridos “enfermos” (sick), which seem to glorify crime, drugs, and violence, earned him a devoted following, but also much criticism. As a response he added a romantic side to his persona, writing and performing a long chain of love songs that earned him significant play on the airwaves and significantly expanded his fan base. His increased success, in turn, made him into a more careful, calculating artist. Torres has been hard at work ever since releasing his first record in 2010 at the age of twenty-two.
“La Vida a Mi Modo” (“Life My Way”), Torres’ seventh studio album in eight years, is a solid addition to his canon, and includes a couple of love ballads that with any justice will make their way to the top of the charts. But it lacks some of the bravura that, for better or worse, made his early work so memorable.
Torres has claimed that he does not condone crime or violence, and that his interest in the exciting adventures of the narcos stems from his admiration for their daring and perseverance. To his credit, Torres broke with the traditional interests of the narcocorrido to develop a more personal approach to the genre, which came to be known as the corridos enfermos. In these narrative ballads, the characters are not usually famous criminals but low-level crooks just trying to make a living. As a child, he told an interviewer, he found them “fascinating”, the stories of “people who came from nothing and became powerful, sought after, so famous”. He attended poor schools (and as a small child crossed the border with the United States illegally). In his world, he says, “there were no options” and that’s why so many people admire the narcos: “somehow, they found a way to stand out,” despite all the obstacles “they made it.”
“La Vida a Mi Modo,” features several corrido-like ballads, but of a less topical, and more personal sort. “Se Vinieron los Problemas” (“Here Comes Trouble”) is a somewhat grumpy rant by an unnamed narrator who’s just found out that his friends are not so friendly when things go sour in his life: “everyone turned their backs on me.” His response is macho posturing of the most off-putting sort, the one based on nothing but a desire for revenge. “I’ll see you around,” he tells his former friends, “Everything will change/ and those who turned on me/ should step carefully/ when they see me coming.” The song is saved by Torres’ beautiful and heartfelt accordion playing, which is prominently featured in only a handful of the album’s nineteen tracks.
Torres seems grateful for having made it, as he makes clear in the title song, “La Vida a Mi Modo,” which serves as the album’s core statement. “Who would have thought that the little one would become so influential,” he marvels, “even though I have my feet on the ground I love to walk in the sky.”
If Torres plans to continue down this introspective road in future work, he better stick to the formula he unveils in “La Escuela de Mi Padre” (“My Father’s School”), which focuses on the qualities of character young Torres learned from his father. “I speak little and watch a lot,” he confides, “I learned everything from the old man.” Even stronger is “El Santo Prieto” (“Saint Prieto”), which is pregnant with detail– “smiling, holding a cup of mescal, riding the beast of burden…” The song seems to be a favorite of the artist, since it appears in two versions in the album.
It’s notable that, even at his most confessional, Torres never allows himself to be truly vulnerable. In “El R Mayor” (“The Capital R”) he speaks of another influential older man, someone who “wasn’t of his blood,” but who nevertheless “led him to better himself.” This man, “the sir among sirs,” is portrayed both as humble and fair and fearsome, and also as loving “the fastest sports cars” and “the most beautiful women,” who are bundled together as “the pleasures of this life.” In “Hasta Parece Que Fue Ayer” (“It Seems Like Only Yesterday”) he tells the story of a trek through the Sonora desert to get to the U.S. border. It’s harrowing and dangerous –“I left my childhood there.” But by the end, the arrogant tone has returned: “I never broke/ those desert adventures/ I will never forget/ I was ten years old/when I came here to triumph/ and dodged the migra.”
In a very busy album, Torres and his collaborators have to work hard to express some variety in the restrictive genre of musica norteña. Torres puts his wonderful accordion playing to good use in a handful of occasions, while in most others he lets the brass or the strings do the heavy lifting. Only a couple of the tracks have the big band sound that Torres has deployed in previous albums, but this seems in line with more intimate tone he looks for in many of his lyrics. This is just as well since he’ll probably give us some big numbers in the next album, which can’t come soon enough.