Why established artists keep making standards albums is beyond me. Actually, I take that back. The reason established artists keep making standards albums is pretty obvious: they make money. From Linda Ronstadt’s teaming with Nelson Riddle in the mid-‘80s to Natalie Cole resurrecting her father’s ghost in the ‘90s to Rod Stewart’s career resurgence as the man behind 4,000 versions of The Great American Songbook, the fact is: folks buy albums of old music sung by familiar names.
With Timeless Love, Smokey Robinson becomes the latest artist to throw his hat in that particular ring, and the fact that Robinson’s making an album like this raises a handful of questions. The obvious one is this: as front man for the Miracles in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and as the architect for the Motown sound, Robinson practically is the Great American Songbook. The man that Bob Dylan famously called “America’s greatest living poet” is an icon of singing and songwriting. His creamy tenor is one of the most recognizable instruments in musical history. Why the heck is he doing an album of standards?
Well, since the hits dried up for Robinson in the early ‘90s, he’s bounced from genre to genre a little bit. After an eight-year absence, he jumped on the neo-soul train with the stunningly underrated Intimate, then went to gospel for his most recent studio effort. In terms of eclecticism, I guess a turn to standards makes sense. But is it any good?
I can answer that question pretty succinctly this way. You know the overused expression, “this guy (or gal) can sing the phone book and make it sound great”? Well, expressions like that were made for artists like Robinson. The man is on the cusp of 70 and he still sounds like he’s 20. That boyish tenor is used to maximum effect on this set of string-laden ballads. He still remains one of the greatest romantic singers ever, joining the likes of Al Green, Frank Sinatra, and Luther Vandross. Timeless Love is the perfect aural accompaniment to that very classy special night with the significant other.
Put it to the test: schedule a romantic night with that special guy or lady. See if they don’t melt under the poetic sentiment of “Our Love is Here to Stay”. Robinson’s yearning vocal is perfectly supplemented by a languid sax solo. They don’t come much more beautiful than this, folks. And who knew that the man could tackle jazz with such great ease? “I’m in the Mood for Love” segues into “Moody’s Mood For Love” (most recently brought back to life by American Idol‘s Elliott Yamin), and Robinson deftly handles the song’s deceptively quick melody. He does the same with an exquisite version of “In Other Words” and a bossa nova-flavored version of “Speak Low”.
The album isn’t perfect. “Night and Day” seems to be a prerequisite for any standards album, and Robinson’s version doesn’t differ substantially from any of the versions that preceded it. He makes up for this (and the occasional dip into blandness) with the smooth, finger-snappin’ vibe of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and a daring meld of the standard “Time After Time” with Cyndi Lauper’s 1984 hit of the same name. Equally daring is a version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” without much accompaniment other than some light keyboard and some booming funk bass!
Timeless Love is fairly unnecessary, but it’s damn good for what it is. Most of these songs don’t need to be touched by anyone ever again, and Robinson’s catalog of songs is big enough that there’s really no need for him to be singing these. However, the quality of Robinson’s vocals alone makes this record worth having. All of us should sound (or look!) this good when we pass retirement age. In the end, Timeless Love is a mostly satisfying piece of work that winds up making sense in a weird sort of way: one of America’s greatest musical treasures performing some of America’s greatest musical treasures.
// Notes from the Road
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