Soul artists the stature of James Brown and Aretha Franklin will always be worth paying attention to simply because of the magnitude of their past accomplishments. Countless others, one-hit wonders and the like, fade into obscurity or irrelevance, working the oldies circuit or simply retiring. Solomon Burke resides somewhere between the two. An influence on many prominent soul and rock artists and revered by soul devotees, Burke scored big on the R&B charts in the early '60s with "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love", "Cry to Me", and other songs, and he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year. However, like many older soul and blues performers, he has not made many notable records in the last quarter of a century.
This album is a concerted attempt to breathe new life to Burke's career. Specifically, it attempts to make the "King of Rock and Soul" relevant again to rock tastemakers who seek authentic, relevant soul music. Released on the Fat Possum label, which has made critics' favorites of rough bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, the record was recorded live in the studio over four days, without overdubs. Most significantly, it contains previously unreleased songs, some of which were written specifically for this album, by a who's who of respected rock songwriters: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, and Brian Wilson. Add contributions from Brill Building legends Mann and Weil ("On Broadway", "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling") and soul songwriting master Dan Penn ("Dark End of the Street") and you have, on paper, the kind of album that gets rock critics foaming at the mouth.
For the most part, Don't Give Up on Me ably lives up to its promise. Tackling soulful pleas and lamentations, Burke's voice and his interpretive talents are intact. More than half of the album's eleven songs stands out. The spare arrangements of these songs and the understated playing of his band showcase his talents well. Particularly excellent are the tight, clipped drumming of Jay Bellerose, which reminds me of Al Jackson's playing on Al Green's records, and the gospel stylings of Rudy Copeland, the organist in Burke's church.
On "Don't Give Up on Me", by Dan Penn, Burke says he wants to make amends and asks his woman for more patience "late in the game". It is easy to also hear this also as Burke's petition to the audience he is trying to reach with this record. Van Morrison's "Fast Train", also recorded by Van the Man on his latest album, deftly melds soul and acoustic folk rock while telling the moving tale of a man riding off the rails. Burke vocalizes like Otis Redding as the song fades. "Soul Searchin'", a fantastic, triplet-filled tune by Brian Wilson, musically mixes soul with sunny '50s rock, though its lyrics are filled with pain and melancholy.
On "The Other Side of the Coin", a thoughtful, plaintive ballad by Nick Lowe, a mature Burke believably admits his shortcomings and asks that his fellows not judge him too harshly. Featuring uplifting vocals from gospel greats the Blind Boys of Alabama, "None of Us Are Free" resurrects a long neglected sub-genre: the politically-conscious soul song that, like "A Change is Gonna Come" or "People Get Ready", promotes spiritual and social uplift. On that track, Mann and Weil have Burke urge us all to "join together in spirit, heart, and mind" and remind us that "none of us is free if one of us is chained".
Surprisingly, two of three disappointing tracks on the record are those penned by two of my favorite writers, Costello and Dylan. "The Judgement", by Elvis Costello, sounds to me like a overly dramatic, formulaic riff on the soul standard "I Stand Accused" by Isaac Hayes, which he covered more than 20 years ago. Dylan's dull, formulaic blues "Stepchild" seems like a throwaway, a song nearly any competent songwriter could have written. These songs, plus "Flesh and Blood" by album producer Joe Henry, failed to move me.
Maybe the most surprising track on this mostly excellent album is the one that concludes it, "Sit This One Out" by Pick Purnell. Unlike nearly every other songwriter who contributed to the album, Purnell is not familiar to me, and I could actually find no information at all about him other than the fact that he wrote this song. Despite the superstar talent contributing to this record, "Sit This One Out" may just be its best song. Perfectly arranged and tastefully played, this one hit me in the gut, a pure soul gem about a man crying over all of the painful fights he has with his woman. "Love sometimes takes the form of frustration, a sad combination of emptiness and doubt," Burke sings. "When the only human connection is expressed with a shout, I think I'm gonna have to just sit this one out." To that, I can say only one thing: Amen.