BILL WITHERS: NAKED & WARM (1976)
1) Close To Me; 2) Naked & Warm; 3) Where You Are; 4) Dreams; 5) If I Didn't Mean You Well; 6) I'll Be With You; 7) City Of The Angels; 8) My Imagination.
It is always at least a little sad to see a favourite artist turn from the utmost sincerity to arrogant dishonesty. Nevertheless, we must brace ourselves and face the facts. There is definitely a serious probability as to Bill Withers being «warm» on that album sleeve, given its immediate context — sunny skies, a summer attire, and suitable ultraviolet-ray-blocking headwear. But unless my eyes trick me into some sort of optical illusion, I would state it as a given fact that the description «naked» does not apply at all. One never knows, of course, whether this could be an act of last-moment censorship imposed upon the artist by the record label, but even so, the album cover is tacky enough without the title — with the title, it's tacky and self-contradictory. And it is with this troubled feeling of deception already creeping in that we proceed on to the music.
And — sure enough — the music more or less matches the album cover in terms of tackiness and self-contradictions. Most of the songs still show the same disappointing direction, towards soft, thoroughly inoffensive balladry and soft funk grooves that take the bill out of the withers without providing anything in return. Keyboards have completely taken over as the musical foundation, with that typical mid-1970s sound that dissolves the musical bone under the pretty skin. And it no longer matters whether any of this is or is not properly «disco» — I've heard dozens of «legit» disco tunes that had far more grit and snappiness to them than something as instantly forgettable as ʽWhere You Areʼ, even if the latter has a fairly tricky time signature.
The only tunes that register even a tiny bit are the title track — only because it turns into a repetitive, but enigmatic, jam in the end, where Bill keeps asking us whether we want to go to Heaven in such a worried tone that one might start believing that really ain't such a good idea; and ʽDreamsʼ, where the electric piano, bass guitar, and synthesizer engage in a pleasant enough trialog while our host for the evening is trying to convince us that "dreams are as good as the real thing sometimes". At least the tonality of the song gives us a whiff of the old paranoid Bill Withers, not this new romantic face, indistinguishable in a crowd of similar faces.
Worst of the lot, unfortunately, and the one song that I would really consider a «failure», as opposed to the «nothingness» of the rest, is the sprawling 10-minute epic ʽCity Of The Angelsʼ, Bill's sudden attempt at going «artsy» on us. Starting off with a 4-minute proto-disco groove, he then shatters it in a sea of analog and digital keyboard sprinkle, and the next six minutes are all spent wading through this quasi-ambient sonic mush. It is almost as if he were really writing a song about an «angel city» (the tune as such is about Los Angeles, as we could all guess), and thought that the perfect soundtrack to a gathering of angels would be this atmospheric «piano soup» — but, to tell the truth, if this kind of atmosphere is typical of angels, then I'd just as rather not go to Heaven, thank you very much. Nothing against ambient muzak per se, but these arrangements sound like one lengthy boring prelude to an equally boring generic fusion jam.
On the whole, this might just be the single lowest point in Bill's career, and I have no idea what he was thinking to himself at the time, unless he was on drugs or something (then again, California occasionally has this really unhealthy anti-artistic effect on Easterners) — one of those cases where a thumbs down is quite well correlated with the fact that the album was not released on CD until 2010. For very major fans only.