Jimmy Cliff's latest is a magnificent return to the roots reggae he first brought to America in the '70s. The result is some of his best work ever.
Reggae music legend Jimmy Cliff turned 64 on the first of April this year. In 2010, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, making him only the second reggae artist to ever achieve such status (the other, of course, is Bob Marley). In 1972, the singer starred in The Harder They Come, a movie that introduced him to the American mainstream as his Ivanhoe "Ivan" Martin proved to be a mesmerizing character for audiences everywhere. The film not only received critical praise, but its soundtrack also essentially single-handedly brought Jamaican music to the United States of America.
Jimmy Cliff, in other words, didn't ever need to make another record again to solidify his legacy and importance in the reggae music world. But he did. And that album, Rebirth, reminds music listeners everywhere that the reggae world would be forced to endure a hole the size of Kingston had the singer decided to give up making music for good. The record not only reclaims his position at the top of the Jamaican music mountain, but it also assures us that the man born James Chambers is far from finished when it comes to recording and performing.
Produced by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, Rebirth is every bit its title. From the excellent ska-oriented album opener "World Upside Down", to the final proper song of the bunch, "Ship Is Sailing", Cliff sounds as invigorated as ever. He's always had a delicate approach to the reggae croon, anyway, but here, his voice is weathered, proving that it has aged perfectly -- fit for a type of tone that pulls at your heartstrings -- vulnerable and poignant, yet confident and promising. It's a living, breathing reminder of why reggae music can be so affecting. His words are so hopeful, yet that voice can sound so hopeless.
The only thing separating Rebirth from perfection is when Cliff decides to veer away from the sun and sand and venture back into the grungy clubs of rock and roll he's been known to hang in every now and then. "Outsider", for instance, is admittedly a lot of fun with its immense gospel influence and obligatory backup female vocals, but compared with the rest of its counterparts, one has to be a tad disappointed that he didn't opt for another soulful reggae jam over a jam that's merely just soulful. "Guns of Brixton" incorporates an unnecessary acoustic guitar that is certainly forgivable, but until the rest of the track kicks in at the 45-second mark, it wouldn't be unnatural to feel a little bit of skepticism about where the song may end up.
But such reservation is actually one of the things that makes Rebirth so damn good. With Cliff having nothing left to accomplish and making the move to enlist a sidekick that spends his summers canoodling on Warped Tours with bands like Good Charlotte, it wouldn't have been unfair to express doubt about how this album might have turned out. Luckily, those feelings are dispelled quicker than one could utter the words "Ruby" and "Soho" as the Armstrong/Cliff combination proves its value in gold even before the first lines are uttered. The Rancid leader's influence is prominent, yet never overbearing, such as on the upbeat "Reggae Music", which is musically more pop-oriented than anything else here. The track's spoken-word storytelling is a treat, too, as one has to wonder if it was Armstrong's idea for Cliff to present his story in such a way. "Children's Bread" is another song that plays to the punk-rocker's strengths, as his knack for quick grooves turns what could have been a ballad into a dance-able, pop-ska party.
That said, Armstrong could have brought the music to Rancid's "Radio" and Cliff would have still made it sound every bit as tender and sweet as only he could, and that proves to be what -- over all else -- makes Rebirth so striking. "Cry No More" and "Rebel Rebel" both slip into the roots reggae feel that is impossible to upstage, and when such is combined with the singer's unforgettable voice, the outcome is always knee-weakening. While both songs slow the tempo down, each takes its own approach to that ageless traditional sound. "Cry No More" is delicate and heavy on the same type of organ that Marley's famous cry-related classic showcased so memorably while "Rebel Rebel" has an edge that is sure to set off Saturday nights on every beach in the Caribbean with its powerful horns and call-and-response refrain of "higher" and "fire".
It would be easy to think this might be the final great outing from such an important reggae music figure, but part of Rebirth's lore is that it sounds so fresh. For as unlikely as it once may have appeared, Jimmy Cliff couldn't have asked for a better partner in crime than Tim Armstrong, and this album is proof of that. The rocker made the reggae superstar sound energized, and the reggae superstar gave the rocker a sense of roots. To simply call this record a rebirth would be too obvious. It certainly isn't the first time Cliff has made timeless music, and if these 13 songs are any indication, this also won't be the last time, either. These songs aren't the sound of a man being reborn -- they are the sound of a man finally getting back to living life to its fullest. And if this album is any indication of where he wants to take his musical existence, one can only hope that Jimmy Cliff's life in the reggae music spotlight is far from over.