More than 40 years into his career, Joe Cocker is still belting it out, sounding impossibly bluesy and almost unhealthily gruff. On his 21st studio album, Hard Knocks, Cocker is at the top of his game, turning in 10 tracks that thump and groove as hard as anything on Luxury You Can Afford did back in 1978.
There’s very little musically to indicate that Hard Knocks wasn’t released sometime in the ’80s, really. The music here is produced to a sparkling pop sheen, and the instrumentation is often quite over-the-top with strings and horns accompanying wah-wah guitars (provided by Ray Parker, Jr), warm piano tones, and anthemic, huge drums (played by Devo‘s Josh Freese, among others).
Cocker sounds most at home when he’s surrounded by a flock of backup soul singers (and he’s spent a lot of his musical time in their company). But he also takes chances at singing on his own here, allowing his aged voice to emote on its own and without a net, as on the excellent slow soul number, So It Goes.
What makes Hard Knocks something of a departure for Cocker, though, is that nine of its tracks are originals. Cocker has made a career of reinterpreting the music of others – often radically – and injecting it with his own brand of blue-eyed soul. He’s famously covered The Beatles (including his version of With A Little Help From My Friends, which is in some ways even more iconic than the original), Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, and Randy Newman, to name a few. But this time out, his only foray into covers territory comes with The Dixie Chicks‘ I Hope.
The opening title track is vintage Cocker, slinking funkily through a tale of life on the streets. “I graduated from hard knocks,” he sings. “I’ve got the bumps and bruises to prove it.” Indeed, his voice indicates the wear and tear he’s put it through over the years, but Cocker is still a commanding presence behind the microphone. Get On wouldn’t sound out of place on a Prince album, Cocker stomping through upbeat funk and wailing about partying over stabbing horns.
Unforgiven is the album’s first ballad, and it sounds a bit dated (somehow more so than the songs that surround it). It reaches for pop brilliance, and it comes very close; Cocker is earnest in his prayer to “be a better man,” and that comes through in his performance, but the instrumentation plays against him. On The Fall, Cocker sings about getting “knocked down and kicked around,” and getting back up, alternating a big adult-contemporary chorus with stomping funk verses.
I Hope sounds the most sincere and original of the collection. There’s something unnamable in Cocker’s ability to channel and re-invigourate the material of others. I Hope, produced by Nashville luminary Tony Brown, who also produced the Dixie Chicks’ version, finds him surrounded by a gospel choir as he wails an invocation and a plea for peace and understanding, love and happiness. The man’s still got it.