In My Soul
I first heard Robert Cray with the album Bad Influence – it’s 30 years old now, it’s stayed with me. I’ve liked a lot of his music but that’s the album I go back to; it’s the one I’ve always hoped he could…well, not replicate, but compete against, match up to. And though I wouldn’t say straight off that he’s ever made a flat-out terrible album it certainly got a little hard to care, that same soul-lite croon and a few soul stabs from the horns, his guitar all but replaced on some of the records…
Then you’d watch the live clips – or hear the one or two genuinely startling and wonderful tracks on about every other record he released – and you’d be wondering why it never (quite) seemed to last.
Well, here, with In My Soul, I really think Cray might have made the album of his career.
He seems, too, to have finally been able to reconcile the soul sound he strives for and the blues that’s so deep inside him.
In My Soul plays to his heroes (Bobby Bland and Otis Redding, Booker T receives a hat-tip on Hip Tight Onions) but there are still plenty of great songs from Cray. His originals sounding as good as they ever have, his guitar offering that gorgeous sting. And he’s in fine voice.
Your Good Thing Is About To End has a lovely waft and slow-build that allows his voice to take centre-stage, to tell the story. I Guess I’ll Never Know is a slight shuffle, the sort of song Bonnie Raitt might take on a journey, but it also reminds of the music Cray was making around the time of Influence and those smooth albums that followed (almost an update of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’s title track even).
Hold On is a stunning ballad, a little Me and Mrs Jones to the sound of the drums, the guitar line, a little bit like The Spinners too. And the way Cray lets this song out, it might be the dinner-jazz version of soul to some, but it’s exquisitely tailored, he’s almost never sounded this good.
What Would You Say sees a dip into country-soul, Deep In My Soul feels like Bobby Womack (in his prime) taking a Dr. John song out for a stroll. And then the closing track, Pillow, almost feels like something Mark Knopfler might have conjured, a record or two back in his own journey. Well, right up until Cray sings. That voice is unmistakeable of course. And it’s never sounded as good as it does here.
He’s put the time in, he’s always done the work. But the elements are all in place here. Once again – and finally: the right combination of players and production, the song selections, that passion and charm. It’s all here. And when you hear something like this you have to wonder why you’re only just coming back to Cray; why he hasn’t been able to dazzle like this more often.