When last we heard Solomon Burke, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to record a country album with Nashville (2006). Since the first sides he recorded for Atlantic in the early-‘60s hinted at his natural affinity for country music, the critically acclaimed set brought his career full-circle. Patty Griffin, Dolly Parton, and Gillian Welch were among the guests who contributed one of their own compositions to the album and sang alongside Burke’s thundering voice. Two years later, Burke turns to Eric Clapton, Jesse Harris, Keb’ Mo’, and Ben Harper on Like a Fire, stirring a bit of rock and blues into his country soul.
Solomon Burke has a way of getting to the heart of words with his phrasing, a quality that gave Nashville a special poignancy, especially on songs like “Valley of Tears” and “That’s How I Got to Memphis”. His voice, which can careen from a low rumble to an exuberant shout in the space of a few notes, gives the lukewarm Like a Fire its heat. “What happens when dreams get shattered and fall to pieces on the ground?”, he demands to know on “The Fall”. The man exemplifies nuance. His inflection on the last three words is like a suppressed cry.
Steve Jordan, who produced Like a Fire, wrote “The Fall” and a pair of cuts that further explores the country aesthetic of Nashville. Despite its benevolent groove, Jordan’s “Ain’t That Something” reflects on the “lies, cheating, and misery” that Burke sees afflicting society. Likewise, “Understanding” is unabashedly shaped with Burke’s worldview, even though Jordan wrote it with Meegan Voss. He infuses potentially cliché lyrics like “a little bit of kindness goes a long way, a little bit of courtesy in what you say” with his substantial vocal presence.
Keb’ Mob’ also adds a touch of country and western to “We Don’t Need It”, a song that sheds light on a conversation that’s all too common at kitchen tables these days—losing a job. Burke brings warmth and sensitivity to the story about a man whose family realizes that the value of love far outweighs any physical valuables. Though Solomon Burke is the “King of Rock and Soul”, the compositions by Steve Jordan and Keb’ Mob’ suggest that he’s really a country singer at heart.
That doesn’t preclude Burke’s natural ability to work in another musician’s element from configuring a couple of tracks on Like a Fire. A collaboration fit for a reunion is Burke with Ben Harper on “A Minute to Rest and a Second to Pray”. Situating Burke in Harper’s mix of rock and funk looks interesting on paper and totally succeeds in execution. Harper elicits the preacher out of Burke. The edginess of the production is the album’s most interesting detour, a path that could have been explored a couple more times on the album.
Meanwhile, Eric Clapton brings a middling pop sensibility to the title track. For better or worse, the song is reminiscent of Clapton’s mid-‘90s work with Babyface. Burke adds depth to the sentiment of the lyrics even if the song isn’t a total success. The country-tinged “Thank You”, written by Clapton with Burke, better reflects the strengths of both artists. Burke sings the song like a prayer to God or, in more secular terms, a “thank you” to his 21 children.
“If I Give My Heart to You” is the album’s post-script. Popularized by Doris Day in 1954, the arrangement here showcases Burke’s interpretive gifts. Though I hesitate to encourage yet another standards album to saturate the market, Burke’s rendition is not at all contrived and actually makes a good case for him to visit the American songbook more often.
Even with Burke’s inimitable style, Like a Fire is probably the least essential of his four ‘00s albums. Simply put, Don’t Give Up On Me (2002), Make Do With What You Got (2005), and Nashville boast more consistently superior material than Like a Fire. The album is ultimately a reminder that Burke is of that small group of artists who can improve a lackluster song just by bringing himself to it. “Why can’t I be like a fire / that’s burning in my soul”, he asks on the title track. Even with its cool embers, Like a Fire shows that the flame is well alit in Burke’s soul.