With a career that spans four decades and 23 albums, there is no doubting Joe Cocker’s credentials. At 68, he’s due a little respect, but Fire It Up is not the album that is likely to win over any new supporters.
Whilst the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash have been able to continuously reinvent themselves and endear themselves to new generations of music lovers, Joe Cocker doesn’t appear to have the same ability, or will. Primarily, this is down to the fact that he doesn’t write many of his killer tunes himself. Ask someone to name a Cocker song, and inevitably they’ll plump for his raucous interpretation of The Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends, and this is perhaps telling. It’s Cocker’s own reliance on his friends that hampers him and on this evidence prevents him from really stamping his authority on his own records.
Fire It Up might be a Joe Cocker album, but apart from his vocals, he’s not really contributed very much at all. Apparently absent in the writing process, and deferring production duties to Matt Serletic there is in fact very little of Joe Cocker in this album at all. Of course there are plenty of artists that don’t write their own songs, and still manage to lend emotion to whatever they’re singing. With a voice like Cocker’s it shouldn’t be a problem. That deep, soulful growl is more than capable of injecting almost any song with a gravitas and emotional weight regardless of whether he’s been involved in the genesis of what he’s singing.
It’s easy to see why the title track got a few excited at Cocker’s return. A slow burn, feel good rock tune, it’d be easy to mistake it as a rousing Springsteen anthem (indeed, the lyrics and short guitar solo throw in allusions to The Boss). It flits back and forth between contemplative passages and a bombastic chorus with such perfection that it’s possible to conclude that it has been precision engineered to please stadium crowds. Throw in a little redemption and hokey existentialism, and it can’t fail to be a winner. Similarly, the Southern Fried blues rock of I Come In Peace keeps the tempo high and allows Cocker’s growls and howls to pack their punch brilliantly as some truly soulful gospel backing vocals elevate the song beyond the realms of a straight up chug.
These moments of inspiration are few and far between however. The Letting Go could quite easily have had the emotional weight of I Come In Peace, but the laid back RnB swing is far too clean in performance and production. It’s a problem that taints most of the album. The smooth nature of the music doesn’t compliment Cocker very well at all. The horn sections should rumble with menace, the backing vocals should be giving righteous praise, but all too often it’s just too polite. The soulless funk of I’ll Be Your Doctor is undoubtedly the nadir of Fire It Up. Get funk wrong and it quickly moonwalks clumsily into a circle of hell that glows red with shame and this should undoubtedly be the recipient of Satan’s pitchfork of embarrassment.
Ignoring the appalling funkiness is one thing, but there’s no getting away from the clumsy doctors and nurses “eroticism” in the lyrics. The cover of Keith Urban’s I’ll Walk In Sunshine again doesn’t help matters, sounding like it’s been knocked out in a karaoke booth in 15 minutes and The Weight Of The World’s crushing stack of empty platitudes, clichés and mild sexism somehow succeeds in being depressing rather than uplifting. It’s a shame that such a distinctive and powerful voice has been surrounded with such bland production and banality.