Saturday, February 02, 2013

Strong Persuader (1986)

By consensus, by acclimation, by the rule of all that is obvious, Robert Cray's breakthrough fifth album (counting Showdown!) is his best. You can almost measure and compare the love Cray fans have for it by how many other albums by him they have had occasion to own (on that scale I am at about a 6). But I have never yet known anyone to claim another by him as better. The template for everything that makes him great is here in these 10 songs, where in retrospect he is clearly about the business of taking down low-hanging fruit. As a guitar player, he's perfectly adequate, even given to moments of brilliance; as a singer it's about the same, though closer to merely adequate. What's most interesting about Robert Cray to me is his songwriting, and more generally and broader than that, the way he builds songs, the story elements he uses. So many of these songs are practically literary, a voice carrying on with a story but somehow also conveying a broader context that often belies, or undercuts, or sometimes emphasizes what the singer is carrying on about. In "Guess I Showed Here," a guy is crowing to himself about all the pain he is causing his woman by leaving her, because he thinks she is having an affair. But he sounds less and less convinced, mulling in the last verse, "Now she can have the house / And she can keep the car / I'm just satisfied / Staying in this funky, little old motel / I'm so mad / Well I can't stand it." In "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," even more starkly, the singer hears the woman he has seduced fighting with her man in the apartment next door (more here). Another element of Cray's songwriting becomes evident comparing the two. He does not have just one persona, nor just a single story, to tell. There's a multiplicity to these songs—which may not have a single story to tell, but ultimately all tend to connect one way or another around deceit in matters of love—that reminds me of a parallel multiplicity to mid-'60s albums by the Beatles. In those songs it is puppy love whereas Cray's are sophisticated and cynical, but the same shifting viewpoints across horizons of experience within the stories of the songs is there. So one result for me is that, as I return to Strong Persuader now and then, I notice that different songs step out differently from the others, or rub against each other in new and different ways, and I identify with these narrators in different ways. It still can seem new when I come back to it. One constant always, of course, is that these songs are excellent blues jam workups within the verse-chorus-verse structure and a perfect pleasure to let just play.

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