BILL WITHERS: +'JUSTMENTS (1974)
1) You; 2) The Same Love That Made Me Laugh; 3) Stories; 4) Green Grass; 5) Ruby Lee; 6) Heartbreak Road; 7) Can We Pretend; 8) Liza; 9) Make A Smile For Me; 10) Railroad Man.
By the time Bill got around to recording his third studio LP, it seems like his sudden burst of popularity went to his head a little bit — the album shows much more «self-importance» than its predecessors, starting from the incomprehensibly scribbled sermon on the front cover ("life, like most precious gifts, gives us the responsibility of upkeep..."), and ending with the songs themselves: ʽYouʼ, the five minute long soft-funk opener, is one continuous preachy rant that does not even begin to bother with the issue of a chorus.
Of course, Bill Withers is an insightful individual and an above-ordinary lyricist, so that his preaching as such never gets irritating, and sometimes you even get caught up in it — ʽYouʼ, in fact, should be counted among the angriest, most sharp-tongued AAPs (Anonymous Antagonist Putdowns) in the history of popular music this side of ʽPositively 4th Streetʼ. ("You're like a man loving Jesus / That says he can't stand the Jew" is just one of the many spikes). But even so, preaching is sort of a universal business, and Bill's idea to try and re-route his music in the direction of «lessons in morality» goes against his individual gift — musical, lyrical, and theatrical impersonation of the psychologically imbalanced person.
The main problem with the two lengthy «epics» that bookmark the album (ʽYouʼ and ʽRailroad Manʼ, the latter featuring José Feliciano on congas and, as it often happens in songs about trains and railroads, nostalgizing about Bill's childhood) is that their length is not backed up by musical dynamics — it is more or less exactly the same funky groove from beginning to end, restrained and repetitive. And at least ʽYouʼ bothers to come up with enough fire-and-brimstone lyrics to pull it through, but with ʽRailroad Manʼ, Bill just repeats the same lyrics twice, as if they really really mattered or as if they did not matter at all, and we were just supposed to get in the groove and carry on for six minutes. But it ain't that cool a groove, even if Feliciano can indeed bang some mean congas.
Fortunately, there are still some very good songs in between. ʽThe Same Love That Made Me Laughʼ is a catchy dance number that successfully combines proto-disco toe-tappiness with Bill's melancholic attitudes (unfortunately, its release as the album's lead single pretty much confined Bill back to the R&B chart section). ʽStoriesʼ is a beautiful piano ballad with the album's finest vocal delivery (the «airplane lift-off» modulation on Bill's voice does make it soar, and blends in brilliantly with the otherwise corny harps and strings). ʽRuby Leeʼ may not be a masterpiece in all of its ingredients, but its «insinuating» bassline is easily the single greatest bassline that Melvin Dunlap came up with (and Bill made the just decision to reward him with a songwriting co-credit for it). And ʽHeartbreak Roadʼ is... well, sort of fun to tap your foot and clap your hands to. Nice, if a little silly-sounding, keyboard accompaniment.
So, on the whole, it wouldn't be at all bad if Bill himself didn't sound disinterested and rather «ordinary» much of the time — especially on Side B, much of which is given over to sentimental ballads and generic preachiness that cannot be fully redeemed even with a lead acoustic guitar part from Feliciano (ʽCan We Pretendʼ). And a song like ʽLizaʼ, a hyper-tender ode from "a worldly old uncle" to "a very innocent young niece", will probably have to wait until you are just in the right mood for it — its potential «gorgeousness» stems mainly from the vocal and keyboard tone rather from any jaw-dropping melodic moves, and not all of us are always on the ready for that kind of tone to make us swoon and fall over. Whatever be the case, it'd be best to wait until you have a very innocent young niece.
Criticisms aside, +'Justments does earn its thumbs up, but remember: if, like myself, you loved the first two albums for their unique attitude, you will most probably find that the attitude has changed, and that this post-Carnegie Hall edition of Bill Withers, modified by success, public attention, and simply the passing of time, is not nearly as unique as it used to be. However, the «base mix» of R&B groove with singer-songwriter atmosphere is still very much in place, so, in a way, you could say all that's really lacking is that tasty cherry on top.