Since his explosive debut on the blues scene in 1980 with Who's Been Talkin', Robert Cray has been heralded as the torchbearer for a new generation of blues artists. With a guitar style full of tight licks and clean tones reminiscent of Albert Collins and B.B. King, Robert Cray's place in the great blues lineage seems appropriate and called for. Throughout his career, however, Cray has resisted the straight blues that imbues this tradition, pushing forward into a more delicate, soul and R&B influenced sound on albums like 1997's Sweet Potato Pie and his Rykodisc debut, 1999's Take Your Shoes Off.
His latest release, Shoulda Been Home, continues the trajectory of these decidedly non-blues records. Strewn about this disc are cool late-night tones, Stax Records-type horns, passionate singing, earnest sensitivity, and a general feel of soul smoothness. Tracks like "Already Gone" and "Out of Eden" are excellent amalgamations of the blues and soul threads of Cray's repertoire. "Already Gone" is a slow blues ballad, punctuated with a pure soul organ mixing with some tasty blues guitar licks. This all might be innocuous enough if it weren't for Cray's high-pitched soul yelp towards the end of the track a la Marvin Gaye or Sly Stone.
Like George Benson's move from hard jazz guitar to cool jazz vocal stylings, Robert Cray has changed from being primarily a blues guitarist to being a cool, smooth vocal auteur. Unfortunately, the soul sensibility that pervades Shoulda Been Home is often overbearing and heavy-handed. On laid-back, mellow tracks like "No One Special", "Anytime", and "Far Away", the focus is clearly on Cray's sensitive emotions and fancy vocal exploration.
Cray continually plays the role of the sensitive, lonely male, struggling to come to terms with his masculinity in the face of female strength and power. While this is a stock blues theme (see, for instance, the work of Robert Johnson), in the context of Cray's new easy-listening blues, these emotions and struggles come off as smug and insincere. Nowhere is this clearer than on the horribly pretentious Barry White-esque track "Far Away": "I didn't know myself, I never knew myself when I met you, and even that must seem like a crime, / you know I promised to love you forever, it's just forever ran out of time". For all the song's stereotypically sexy wah-wah guitar lines or sensual vocal tactics, there is not one ounce of humor or any indication of awareness that this is a blues singer playing the role of a soul singer.
Fortunately for Cray's blues fans, there are a few tracks on Shoulda Been Home that are the most raw, naked blues he has recorded in years. "Renew Blues" is a wonderful one-minute sketch, scratchy and rough, while the album's closer, a cover of Elmore James's "The 12 Year Old Boy", absolutely cooks in its ragged 12-bar blues glory. On these tracks Cray does not sound like he's playing a part or trying to be something he's not. The Cray that comes through on these blues songs is one of startling guitar mastery and honest, unaffected emotion. These tracks, however, do not save Shoulda Been Home from being an uneven release, unsure if it wants to be a blues or a soul record. But for blues fans, tracks like "Renew Blues" hopefully point towards Robert Cray's return to the straight blues he abandoned more than a decade ago.