A Voice of Smoke and Honey
Steve Forbert doesn’t look back. The songs on his latest release, Over With You, blithely allude to a troublesome past, but they are more concerned with looking to the future for redemption—or at least a better tomorrow. He just wants to make things right, give another 10 percent, and try harder. But Forbert knows his limits. He understands “forever” is not a metaphor a golden night for love or even just a long time, it is simply forever. He addresses this directly on the title song, which concerns a breakup. The lyrics indicate that the two lovers may have had better times, but they no longer will ever be together or even be the same. It’s over, forever, even if there is still love. Something inside him still wants to fix what cannot be fixed.
Although this may be taking Forbert too literally, he’s a weird story teller who will narrate a story straight one minute and then delve into associative non-sequiters the next. He’ll go from the literal to the surreal without changing vocal expressions or even taking a pause, as if the conventional and the extraordinary exist side by side, which of course they do. Maybe it’s because he so often sings of love, that strange, ephemeral, shape-shifting emotion. On lively tracks such as “That’d Be Alright”, “Metal Marie”, and “All I Need of You”, Forbert spritely sings of romantic good feelings without looking at them too hard lest they disappear.
A word is necessary here to describe Forbert’s smoke and honey Mississippi drawl. His voice, which was always distinctively sweet and Southern, has aged like good whiskey. Every note he sings, whether he takes the rule of the seducer or the one left behind, the good friend or the betrayer, has a rich and mellow tone with an ache that cuts like a knife. After 30-plus years of recordings and more than a dozen top-notch albums, he still makes you hungry for more. The biggest problem with this ten-track, 36-minute disc is that there needs to be additional music. CDs can hold twice this amount.
These days, the once critically proclaimed heir to Dylan shares more in common with other classic folk rockers (in the broadest sense of the word) like Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. Two songs in particular, “Baby, I Know” and “Sugarcane Plum Fairy” seem to purposely evoke the Boss circa the 70s with the clipped harmonica playing and absurd litanies of creative tropes (re: “I didn’t mean to uptightin’ or frighten you knocking on our front door / Still you must say you’ve never seen a cicada this close and alive before” or “Your crazy grandpa spills the wine around the sycamore tree / I hear his band saw just inside where your nephews might be”). Forbert’s funny, but odd. Think “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat” and you comprehend the ore Forbert mines here.
Musically, the production is spare and allows each of his cohorts to shine. Ben Sollee’s cello work on “Don’t Look Down, Pollyanna” is particularly noteworthy for its haunting character. The song tells the story of a house in Shreveport, Louisiana and encapsulates the recent mortgage crisis in human terms. Sollee’s playing subtly evokes the feelings of loss and moving on when things don’t work out as they should. Also noteworthy are drummer Michael Jerome and Jason Yates on piano and organ. The more famous Ben Harper plays guitar on three cuts, including lead on the slinky “That’d Be Alright”.
“I could wait forever, but it’s all that time alone,” Forbert sings on one track. That could be understood as a metaphor for his career. You would think after all these years of critical acclaim that Forbert would be a household name. Maybe this will be the album that will make people check him out. But Forbert knows better than to wait forever. He just keeps on plugging away making fine music.