How would you describe ‘Blues’? Old men singing about how they woke up one morning to find their woman/dog/kitchen appliance was dead? Interminable guitar solos and gruff vocals? Beloved of critics who use words like “authentic” and “gritty”?
If so, then move on to that latest angry pop-punk post-Libertines combo if you please, as your mindset is obviously far too narrow for the latest Robert Cray album. Now in his 25th year as a recording artist, Twenty is his fourteenth album and is shot through with his customary professionalism and polish.
Yet there are also signs of progression here, in the shape of Cray’s most explicitly political song yet – something that may surprise long-term Cray devotees who are more used to him musing on the end of relationships or of just being a low down dirty dawg (as on one of Cray’s best songs, Right Next Door).
Twenty, though, is a soulful blues ballad about the Iraq War told from the point of view of a young American soldier. By focusing on the human story behind the war, Cray expertly personalises the song and avoids empty political hectoring. Many artists have covered this topic before of course, but not so many have done so with such skill as Cray.
Twenty is a stunning song, but that doesn’t mean there’s not much else to enjoy here. Cray’s critics have often complained that he serves a watered-down version of the blues, but that’s surely missing the point. It’s true that nobody will tell urban legends about Cray selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, but Twenty is full of songs about pain, heartbreak and infidelity, which is after all the lifeblood of the blues.
Opening track Poor Johnny, for example, tells the tale of the downfall of a serial cheater (“they had to teach him a lesson, they had to do what was right”) set to a wonderfully laid-back ska backing track, while I’m Walkin’ is a more upbeat number with some entertainingly bitter lyrics.
Cray’s voice throughout is truly soulful – he has the sort of vocal that can raise the more mediocre numbers into something special, and tracks such as Does It Really Matter or I Know You Will, which could sound formulaic in other hands, sound great here. His guitar playing is even better, with the old clich� about making his guitar sing never being more appropriate. His solo on the lovely Fadin’ Away is just breath-taking, while similar marvels are worked with the smoky ballad It Doesn’t Show.
For a man with five Grammy Awards to his name, it’s surprising that Cray isn’t more of a household name. Twenty probably won’t propel him into the Eric Clapton league, but for all fans of blues music, you can’t get much better than Robert Cray.