BILL WITHERS: WATCHING YOU, WATCHING ME (1985)
1) Oh Yeah!; 2) Something That Turns You On; 3) Don't Make Me Wait; 4) Heart In Your Life; 5) Watching You, Watching Me; 6) We Could Be Sweet Lovers; 7) You Just Can't Smile It Away; 8) Steppin' Right Along; 9) Whatever Happens; 10) You Try To Find A Love.
No matter what the circumstances are, generic, unadventurous R&B from the Seventies will always be preferable to generic, unadventurous R&B from the Eighties — for the simple reason that in the Eighties, musicianship as such was pretty much exiled from the world of generic R&B, replaced by plastic electronics and robotic dance grooves. Consequently, the only good R&B to come from the Eighties is non-generic R&B, and the more it violates these standards, the more chances it has to be good.
I sure wish Bill Withers' last studio LP could have satisfied this hope, but alas, that was not to be. Produced and engineered by a bunch of hacks, this pathetic result of Bill's long-awaited return to Columbia studios is a stylistic disaster, and should rank, along with Naked & Warm, as one of the biggest disappointments in a formerly great artist — the distance between Still Bill and Watching You, Watching Me is comparable to... well, then again, pretty much any great R&B artist ruling the public tastes in the Sixties or Seventies sucked in the Eighties. The difference is that Bill, at his best, was so much more than an R&B artist — and here, well, he ends up sounding like a roughly trained disciple of Luther Vandross.
Electronic drums, synthesizers, and ecstatic guitar wank-a-thons that plague Watching You are, however, only one half of the problem — the other half is that most of the songs are completely uninteresting. Bill's voice, always pleasant in and out of itself, is still in great shape, but it is applied to rotten melodies whose only purpose is to sound «uplifting». It's not as if the melodic structures of the songs got too simplified or ran out of inspiration — it is simply that the album is drenched in banality, and Bill's one-time ability to play this multi-faceted, almost perversely fascinating character, sweet and frightening at the same time, has completely evaporated. This endless stream of superficially diverse, but substantially quite interchangeable love ballads and softly lukewarm dance rockers is instantaneously forgettable.
The only possible exception, which might not even reveal itself upon first listen, is ʽSteppin' Right Awayʼ, a slightly grittier groove that begins as an ode to the secret magic of love and then ends up incorporating The Lord's Prayer in the funkiest arrangement ever seen since the days of Jesus, when the Master, no doubt, used to get it on with his disciples on a daily basis. Nowhere near a classic, the song stands out simply because everything else is so forgettable — I am sort of interested in thinking what would somebody like Prince have made out of it, given the chance, because Bill, unfortunately, can put a groove under his control, but cannot develop it to any sort of climactic peak, if you know what I mean.
No other track here deserves even a brief mention. Everything is as glossy and sterile as the album sleeve suggests — with its dashing white colors more suggestive of a stuffy hospital than of Paradise — and the result is a rather ignoble thumbs down and a pretty sad end for a career that began with so much promise. I do not know why Bill chose to retire from the music business (or, at least, from studio recording) almost completely after this album, but I would not be surprised if, deep inside himself, he actually understood that he had nothing left to say to the world, and that his life hours would rather be spent somewhere else than wasted on further impotent attempts at songwriting and recording. One might also suggest that here was just another victim of stupid musical fashions and cruel music business. Whatever be the case, you'd be much better off saving yourself the trouble and forgetting this album ever existed.