When I first met the music of Bill Withers I was amazed not only by it, but by the control. That extends over from the subtly of the arrangements and his vocal control to the quality control – here was a guy that started late and finished early; he was really only active across the 1970s. And he didn’t have a bad album…
Until I found it.
When I first heard Watching You, Watching Me, I was elated to discover that We Could Be Sweet Lovers was in fact the original of the song I knew, by Kiwi group Holidaymakers – I don’t recall any local DJ ever mentioning it was a cover; the song (the Kiwi version) was everywhere for a summer and a half. And though I never had strong feelings about it either way it was a ‘big’ song. It was there. It was everywhere. And it was yet another that had come from the pen of Bill Withers.
But that was my only take-away from the first time listening to Watching You. That, and the fact it clearly wasn’t very good. Wasn’t a patch on those first two studio albums, nor the killer live record that followed. Wasn’t a patch on anything he did across the 1970s. Why did it take him seven years to follow on from his seventies work? And why this?
Well – turns out Withers’ golden run was very hard to follow up on – and it wasn’t for lack of trying. He was, in the end, another of his era/generation that struggled with working out what to do and how to sound in the 1980s. It happened to all of them – bunch of 40+ year olds trying to look hip and cool and add synths and drum machines and such.
Withers tried for years to make something…anything…ahead of Watching You. His record company kept telling him it was unworkable, nothing was worth releasing – he was turning up with garbage, handing in utterly inferior work.
He started doubting himself. You have to wonder if this was the first time that was the case – everything else seems immaculate, but always with heart and soul so easy to feel and hear and even see.
Not this time.
And that story always fascinated me about this album – so from time to time I’d give it another go. Almost laughable I thought.
But that didn’t stop me playing it. Sometimes you work through the weirdness, dullness, dumbness by just hooking into the album anyway. Everything is telling you that you shouldn’t bother. So you do. It’s not even contrariness – it’s just something that happens through a familiarity. You wrestle with the work, try to understand its faults and in the end just ignore them, accept them, listen around them…
And I am not at all going to convince anyone that this is the hidden gem or lost classic in his catalogue because, well, it isn’t. And anyway, there’s an embarrassment of riches sitting there earlier in the canon. He gave us more than enough.
But I will say that since Bill Withers’ death – and you’ll read there that I was (and am) a fan for life – I can tell you that I haven’t much felt the need to revisit his masterpieces. I guess I know that stuff so well already.
Instead I’ve been compelled to revisit Watching You – and perhaps it’s because we now live in (and through) very strange times but this album makes a lot more sense now. Opener, Oh Yeah sounds a lot like middling/decent-ish Lionel Richie material that I’m often very forgiving towards.
Something That Turns You On deserves another spin in this post-Yacht Rock world.
Heart In Your Life speaks to the same concerns that Withers’ best – best – work was always seeking out. Granted, it isn’t as good. But if you keep that in mind and then remember this was made in 1985 it really does start to make sense.
So you see, there’s a way in.
And these are hardly rave re-appraisals now.
But there’s more here than I first heard.
You Just Can’t Smile It Away though. For me that’s the shining gem here. The one I never really noticed before. Maybe I’m old enough and un-hip enough now to default to schmaltz. Maybe that’s all this is. But that’s okay by me and I’m certainly okay by it.
Shit That’s Good! Crap Albums I Love is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks