If you don’t recognize John Waite’s face or name, you’ll sure as hell recognize his voice. He’s had a handful of solo hits, but he might be better remembered as the lead singer of the Babys (in the late ‘70s) and Bad English (in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s). Although lots of folks immediately peg him as a one-hit wonder (thanks to the 1984 #1 smash “Missing You”, which was the best of all the “Every Breath You Take” rewrites that popped up around that time), the man has made a thirty-year career for himself over the years. Not too shabby, I say.
Waite’s latest album, Downtown—Journey of a Heart is a bit of a strange mishmash of things: some of the songs included are new, some songs are re-recordings of hits he’s had over the years, another handful comes from an independently released album (an unofficial tribute to his adopted hometown of NYC) a couple of years back. I remember seeing him at a radio-sponsored concert around that time and being impressed that he was still in strong voice after all these years. However, although he’s a fine vocalist and a good songwriter, I’m not sure that those stats alone create a need to own some of these songs for a second, third or fourth time. And, let’s face it, anyone who’s a fan of John Waite already has the original versions of the more popular songs included here.
So, how are those popular original songs? And should you buy this album because of them? Well, “Missing You”‘s pensive synth-rock gets an earthy, semi-acoustic makeover here. It doesn’t outclass the original, but it’s more inspired than you’d give a faded star’s recreation of his biggest hit credit for. The song is recast as a duet with bluegrass icon Alison Krauss, and her vocals here provide an ethereal counterpart to Waite’s heartbroken rasp. Meanwhile, “When I See You Smile” is also given a slight bit of twang, and Waite also removes the power-ballad vocal histrionics from the original. Considering how much I grew to detest this song in my youth, the fact that Waite’s makeover is even listenable says a lot. There’s also an attempt to roots-ify the Babys’ hit “Isn’t It Time” that falls a little flat. The song’s jump from piano ballad to Mellencamp-esque raveup just doesn’t work. Neither do the anonymous femme backup singers.
Actually, if there’s any defining characteristic of this album, it’s that it’s largely an acoustic affair. A real band spirit permeates this album, something Waite kinda shied away from in the mid-‘80s when he was exploring synth-pop. A raucous rendition of “Highway 61 Revisited” sounds like a real-live bar band taking a stab at the blues. Of course, I’ve always liked Dylan when being sung by others, and this continues that trend. The rest of the album varies between renditions of vaguely-known songs (the pretty ballad “In Dreams”, from a minor mid-‘90s comeback) and songs you’re probably hearing for the first time, some of which are good (the rollicking “The Hard Way” and “Headfirst”, which has an ‘80s power-pop feel to it), and some of which are not (“St. Patrick’s Day”, which is an overwrought boy-meets-girl ballad not to be confused with the John Mayer song of the same name).
I’d imagine that at this point in his career, Waite’s not looking for any new fans to join the table. However, he picked a good way to rope casual fans in. By offering familiar songs in a slightly new context, he catches the potential listener’s ear. Once they’re listening, he hooks the listener in with some new (or at least previously unheard) songs that prove that he’s still got some skills as far as ‘80s relics go. That John Waite is one sneaky bastard, eh?