If you attend a Solomon Burke concert, you’ll get a pretty unique visual experience. The “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul” performs from a giant golden throne, surrounded by his band and a rotating roster of guest stars. The 70-year-old singer’s limited mobility obviously plays into this staging choice, but it hardly seems like a limitation. Burke could command an audience standing, sitting or lying down.
He’s been demonstrating that since his 2002 comeback, teaming up with four different big-name producers to create four eclectic albums exploring rock, pop and country. Like Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash, Burke joined in on the current Americana spirit, mining the classic and contemporary songbooks for material. His extemporaneous, preacher-like interpretation shed an often startling new light on these songs, while the exploration of new styles opened him up to some of the best vocal performances of his career. Unlike Cash, who sometimes felt unnaturally propped up (whether by Rubin, his collaborators, or the text) amidst a stylistic backdrop he had helped to innovate, Burke came across as a performer who transcends genre, somebody who can sing anything.
Now Burke returns to his soul roots with Nothing’s Impossible, working with Willie Mitchell, the producer behind Al Green’s ‘70s reign as well as his 2003 comeback. This is an exciting move, since a considerable percentage of new Burke converts may need reminding he sang soul music. Burke’s original output was never as commercially viable as that of the artists (Green included) who would come after him, and it hasn’t lingered as well in the collective consciousness. Unfortunately, Nothing’s Impossible is kind of a reminder why that is.
That’s not to say it doesn’t work. Mitchell’s production leans on early Burke’s organ/strings/horn formula, remaining respectful of the tradition while lovingly updating it for a new era. Burke’s voice remains miraculous, despite showing his age more than ever before. “Say You Love Me Too” sports a languid hook that Burke delivers in a dirty, pitchy drawl. “Dreams”, the most gospel-tinged tune here, plays out like a sermon as Burke lazily extemporizes for six minutes over droning organs, stretching out every lyric as far as it can go, repeating words and phrases and at one point even reciting the days of the week. It’s beautiful, classic Burke.
What holds the album back is its songwriting. Nothing’s Impossible marks Burke’s return to the helm as songwriter, penning (with Mitchell) most of the album’s 12 tracks. There aren’t really any duds here, but his brand of vaguely positive, gospel-influenced love songs doesn’t quite hold the weight of an album, especially when compared to the power of some of his crossover work. It’s telling that a cover of an Anne Murray tune fits right in here. A voice still needs a text; here, Burke sometimes comes across as a great preacher who could have used a couple more points on his sermon outline.
Perhaps by revisiting his roots Burke is inevitably revealing his limitations as an artist. Burke’s legacy lives on more than anywhere else in the artists he’s influenced. Al Green developed Burke’s sexy preacher style into a split personality—terrified sinner and Godfearing saint—that was arguably more compelling than Burke’s middle ground. Now, artists like Patty Griffin are carrying on the Burke tradition into the 21st century; that’s why Burke’s cover of her “Up to the Mountain” on 2006’s Nashville was such an incredible moment. It takes a great artist to be willing to stand on the shoulders of those who have stood on his in the past. Burke’s later career has been filled with moments like that.
Nothing’s Impossible, by comparison, is permeated by an austere air of tribute, especially in light of Mitchell’s death just months after these sessions were finished. It’s a tribute to two great musical talents, still playing at the top of their game after so many years. For what it is, it works, and it’s even kind of lovely, but it’s nowhere near as vital as either the early works it’s drawing on or the late-career exploration it’s following. Get it anyway; Burke can sing anything. When he’s got something to say, though—dang, that’s powerful stuff.
// Notes from the Road
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