Despite a successful career now in its fifth decade, Joe Cocker will forever be associated with his over-the-top 1969 set at Woodstock. Wild-haired, tie-dyed and convulsive, Cocker introduced everyone to a unique aural hybrid of gritty (albeit soulful) British blues. His vocal style has barely changed over the years, earning him the respect of his contemporaries and a solid, if not remarkable, degree of commercial success. Yet the most interesting aspect of Cocker is that his greatest strength, his raspy voice, can also be his most glaring weakness.
Such is the case with the recent release, Heart & Soul. Sticking to his past blueprint of interpreting other’s work in true Cocker-esque form, the singer offers a dozen covers (and a single live track) with decidedly mixed results. The primary problem with the songs is that the majority seem ill-suited for Cocker’s abilities. His husky vocals work best when paired with bluesy soul-infused material, allowing him to reinterpret while never straying too far from each song’s original textural theme. Cocker is in his element on the funky “Chain of Fools” and the slow burn of “I Put a Spell on You”, as his good-natured growl rides a soaring tide of guitars (courtesy of Skunk Baxter and Eric Clapton, respectively) and backing instrumentation. Unfortunately this pair of tracks is the highlight of an otherwise mediocre album.
Cocker’s limitations as a singer are most apparent when trying to meld appropriate levels of melodic tenderness on songs that desperately cry out for such treatment. Alas, Cocker’s huskiness simply does not translate well in covering U2’s “One”, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” or Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. The version of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” fails as Cocker’s pained sincerity sounds contrived and unconvincing, and the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On” is nothing more than pedestrian.
There are several upbeat moments, including Cocker’s takes on “I Keep Forgetting”, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, but these are not enough to buoy the album into generally memorable territory. In many instances, Cocker’s voice is far overshadowed by the impressive instrumentation that backs him. If nothing else, a stellar roster of guest artists appears and saves Cocker from the dubious distinction of releasing a collection that could have been much worse without a strong supporting cast.
The uninspiring nature of the new album is more reflective of a poor choice of material than Cocker’s abilities as a vocalist. When singing the right songs, Cocker can still bring listeners back to that hot summer day in 1969 when he wowed the crowd with his rousing performance. In the case of Heart & Soul however, Woodstock is just a distant memory.