No longer a mad dog or a gentle Englishman
Most old fans think of Joe Cocker as a wild man, thanks to his high-energy performance at Woodstock (not to mention John Belushi’s spot on imitation of it), and Cocker’s documentary tour film from that era, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. More recent admirers are familiar with the mellower side of the English native, the one who had big hits with soft rock standards like “You Are So Beautiful” and his duet with Jennifer Warnes, the theme song from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, “Up Where We Belong”.
However, Cocker is not the “Sheffield Shouter” or the smooth singer of yesteryear. He’s somewhere in the middle. Ethan Johns’ production puts Cocker’s vocals in the forefront, which makes sense for a singer like Cocker whose familiar voice is well-known. Unfortunately, too often Johns has him pretend to sing like the man he used to be.
Having Cocker faux belt out a tune or fake his way through a mellow melody obscures the fact that he still has obvious vocal talents. Everyone ages. It’s not a surprise that Cocker is not the singer he used to be. When Cocker just sings, when he doesn’t overly accentuate or croon, he makes some worthy rhythm and blues style music.
The best example of this can be found on the title tune. Cocker sings largely without histrionics to a gospel style instrumentation and offers a gentle plea for his own salvation. “I saw myself today / I looked good I must say,” Cocker preaches (in the words of the song’s composer Andy Fairweather-Low). Cocker appears comfortable with himself, and the results reveal that he should be. He sounds fine when he sings without affectation.
Therein lies the dilemma of Cocker and his producer. Cocker’s a legendary musician whose sound is well-known to millions of fans. They make him sound like himself, that is the voice of Cocker that his old fans are familiar with, in order to sell records. But the music sounds better when Cocker just sings.
Since Cocker is a singer, not a songwriter, the strength of his records often rely on the material he chooses. There was once a time when friends like The Beatles would give him a song to release (i.e. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) before the band recorded it to ensure Cocker’s version would get lots of attention. That’s no longer the case, but he does pick some good songs.
Cocker covers George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and songs by soul luminaries Solomon Burke and Percy Mayfield. Cocker does credible versions. None, though, are better than the originals.
The American release also contains a bonus track of “Come Together” from the recent movie soundtrack to Across the Universe. Cocker always does a good job with Beatle tunes (his version of “Little Help from My Friends” showed the limitations of Ringo’s vocals) and this is the case here.
Cocker’s latest effort reveals the problems old stars face when confronting their legacies. He’s still got talent, but he’s not the man he used to be. So he and his producer go out and sell the brand Joe Cocker. If this allows Cocker to keep on making music, well, there are worse things. And the pleasures found here show that he should not pack it in yet.