BOBBY WOMACK: THE POET (1981)
1) So Many Sides Of You; 2) Lay Your Lovin' On Me; 3) Secrets; 4) Just My Imagination; 5) Stand Up; 6) Games; 7) If You Think You're Lonely Now; 8) Where Do We Go From Here.
By 1981, Bobby was stuck with Beverly Glen Music, a record label so insignificant that it does not even have its own Wikipedia page. Amazingly, this did not impede the man from undergoing a brief revival of sorts: ʽIf You Think You're Lonely Nowʼ, a romantic «new style R&B» ballad, unexpectedly became a huge hit, and helped pull the album up the charts as well — higher, in fact, than any previous Bobby Womack album. Of course, the well-chosen title and the cool sleeve photo (nice match between guitar and suit color, among other things) helped a lot, but on the whole, this dazzling commercial success requires some effort to understand.
It is definitely true that The Poet reflected a certain shake-up. With disco dead and gone, and R&B beginning to undergo the next stage of transformation — with synthesizers and electronic drums replacing live bands — it was only natural that Bobby, who had already kowtowed to current trends on his previous two albums, would not be above kowtowing to the latest change in fashion. From that point of view, The Poet sounds more or less like any normal R&B album circa 1981. We do have the synthesizers, and the treated drums, and the echoey backing vocals, and every production aspect typical of those years.
But it is also true that these songs, unlike anything on Roads Of Life, carry some actual meaning. To appreciate the album, it helps a lot if one listens to the acoustic demos for two of its key tracks (ʽGamesʼ and ʽSecretsʼ), appended as bonus tracks to one of the CD issues. They are actually so good that I cannot help wondering how much stronger would the entire album have been if it were just Bobby and his acoustic guitar — naturally, an album like this wouldn't be much of a chart contender, but a legend contender, for sure. ʽGamesʼ, in particular, comes across as a tragic plea for humanity, punctuated by mournful chords and plaintive vocals. When you listen to it in its final incarnation, the mournful chords are gone, replaced by completely expressionless keyboards, and the plaintive vocals are diminished in power by the rest of the arrangement.
Still, that fact alone is enough to realize that at least Bobby is back on an «artistic» track. A few songs dealing with spiritual matters, most of them still dealing with his favorite topic (dissatisfaction with his latest object of desire), but all of them conceived as actual songs and not simply launchpads for mindless (and toothless) grooving. Even the openly dance-oriented tracks like ʽLay Your Lovin' On Meʼ are sung with a level of passion that exceeds any of his disco numbers; and musically, there is a strong soft-jazz streak to them, with pianos and saxophones sometimes rising over the synthesizers and introducing a moody, living vibe that redeems some of these arrangements. There may not be any particular masterpieces — or, at least, the arrangements almost never succeed in bringing out the best in these melodies — but this stuff is not «fodder».
Of course, the album's best known song, as it frequently happens, is arguably one of its worst tracks — ʽIf You Think You're Lonely Nowʼ, a midnight ballad about Bobby dumping his bitchin' girlfriend (again), is mostly memorable for the endless repetition of its chorus hook and little else (well, Bobby does play some nice jazzy electric licks in the background, but, as usual, they are few and far in between and when I say «background», I really mean it). But if you hear it on the radio and fail to pay attention to its never-ending monotonous coda and then learn with surprise that it was a huge hit for Bobby Womack, do not let it fool you: there is more to The Poet than that one song. The big question is, would you actually care to go back in time and recover the soul of this album from under the crappy generic arrangements?
If anything, Bobby should have done the record with a small jazz combo — acoustic guitar, bass, piano, maybe just a little sax, maybe no drums at all — and it would have been a beautiful, occasionally deep-reaching experience (do look for these acoustic demos, they are far worthier than the finished product). As it is, The Poet is badly dated through generic misproduction, the songs suffocated by plastic treatment. But even so, I still give the album a thumbs up, since its intentions are clearly good — and wherever they are not hampered too much by extra gloss, carried out brilliantly: for instance, ʽJust My Imaginationʼ (not a Temptations cover!) may have been one of the most gorgeous songs recorded by the man.
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