[10 April 2006]
It’s as easy to understand why Terence Trent D’Arby never became a star of lasting consequence on these shores as it is difficult to understand the exact same thing. D’Arby came up in an era when the reigning pop stars were Michael Jackson and Prince, and he shared similarities with both. Like The King of Pop, D’Arby was a master showman, with influences that included soul greats like James Brown and Jackie Wilson. Like Prince, D’Arby was a bit…shall we say…mercurial? He straddled the lines between rock, funk and soul, and was as comfortable with a smooth ballad as he was with power chords. D’Arby also had a bit of an eccentric streak.
After a Grammy-winning successful debut in 1987-88, D’Arby’s career promptly went down the toilet amid accusations of egomania (he famously proclaimed that his debut album was better than Sgt. Pepper’s) and the fact that the rock media found a less challenging, more pliable black rock/soul phenom in Lenny Kravitz. Do You Love Me Like You Say?: The Very Best of Terence Trent D’Arby proves that the man’s genius didn’t go away when the hits dried up. Over the course of four albums for Columbia Records (encompassing the years 1987-1995), D’Arby followed his muse wherever it lead him, and the results, while occasionally frustrating, were almost always exciting.
D’Arby’s story begins in New York. Oh…you thought he was British? Well, let’s just say that the man mastered the fake Brit accent way before Madonna decided to try one on her own. Actually, he wound up settling in Europe after a stint in the armed forces, and hooked up with a bunch of funk/rock groups before making the acquaintance of new wave band Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware, who helped D’Arby with most of his debut album, 1987’s Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. After a slow start upon it’s release in fall 1987, the album gained legs due to the pounding dance-rock of the #1 single “Wishing Well” and an energetic performance on the 1988 Grammy Awards. Within a year, D’Arby had a platinum album, three top 40 pop hits and a Grammy to his credit. Success brought total autonomy, and his sophomore album, 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh: A Soundtrack of Love, Hope, Faith & Destruction (this dude had some seriously bizarre album titles), was what can lovingly be called an ambitious mess. D’Arby’s melding of genres proved to be a marketing nightmare, and his music was a bit challenging for the folks who were banging Debbie Gibson and the New Kids on their radios.
However, a second look shows how good the music was. Like just about every other soul vocalist in the world, he had a way with the ballad. The seductive “Sign Your Name” (“Sign your name across my heart/ I want you to be my baby”) provokes romantic clenches nearly two decades later. Other tracks included here, like the almost-hit “Delicate” (a duet with Des’ree) and “To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly” are gentle and airy. Terence’s voice sounds like a cloud floating over these sensuous, Sade-like arrangements.
But, like Tina Turner on “Proud Mary”, the man could do it nice and easy, and he could do it nice and rough. His raspy high tenor often brought comparisons to soul shouters like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, and D’Arby could mash up a funk or rock groove as well as anyone. 1988’s “Dance Little Sister” is extended into an eight and a half-minute remix on this compilation, and D’Arby proves how much he learned from The Godfather of Soul, even quoting a fairly lengthy snatch of Jame Brown’s “Sex Machine” during the song. “She Kissed Me” mixes soulful vocals with some Beatle-esque psychedelic and jagged rock guitars, while “Elevators & Hearts” (the B-side of “Wishing Well”) sounds like a Bad-era Jackson outtake, until the song’s tempo shifts wildly and begins to approximate the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”. The man was capable of quite a bit.
While this compilation covers all of his singles, (hit and otherwise), it also gives us a few stunning difficult-to-find tracks. The album track “If You All Get to Heaven” is given a spacey dub/funk treatment by Lee “Scratch” Perry, while the tender ballad “Let Her Down Easy” is presented in a live version with D’Arby at the electric piano. Two covers are also thrown in for good measure: a sweaty version of The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and a spine-tingling version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, which finds D’Arby backed up by ‘60s soul band Booker T. & The MG’s. The fact that Terence was able to take on what many people consider to be the greatest soul song of all time and hold his own speaks volumes.
His music wasn’t always easy to swallow, and he was certainly capable of going way too far to the left, but D’Arby’s music is as satisfying as it is confusing. In typical D’Arby style, the man is recording under a new name (Sananda Matreiya), is based in Italy, and was reportedly considered to be Michael Hutchence’s permanent replacement in INXS before they went the reality-show route. While each of his albums is notable in their own right, “Do You Love Me Like You Say?” is a worthwhile introduction (or re-introduction) to an extremely underrated artist who stubbornly and satisfyingly followed his own muse.