Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Smokey Robinson

  • Smokey [Tamla, 1973] B
  • Pure Smokey [Tamla, 1974] C+
  • A Quiet Storm [Tamla, 1975] B
  • Deep in My Soul [Tamla, 1977] B+
  • Big Time [Tamla, 1977] B-
  • Where There's Smoke . . . [Tamla, 1979] A-
  • Warm Thoughts [Tamla, 1980] B+
  • Being With You [Tamla, 1981] B+
  • Yes It's You Lady [Tamla, 1982] B
  • Touch the Sky [Tamla, 1983] B+
  • Blame It on Love and All the Great Hits [Tamla, 1983] B-
  • Essar [Tamla, 1984] B+
  • One Heartbeat [Motown, 1987] B
  • My World: The Definitive Collection [Motown/UME, 2005]
  • Timeless Love [New Door, 2006] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Smokey [Tamla, 1973]
This is a good bad record and you'll just have to forgive Smokey in advance. It turns out that he didn't split with the Miracles for domestic reasons--somewhere in his heart, he wanted to be Isaac Hayes--and yet somehow he's beyond all his own bullshit. Listen to "Harmony," about the Miracles, or "Just My Soul Responding," a landmark of post-psychedelic soul protest, or "The Family Song," an astrology lyric that ought to be covered by Shirley Ellis, or Grace Slick. B

Pure Smokey [Tamla, 1974]
This includes the most audacious and appropriate song Smokey has written in years, "Virgin Man," but otherwise it is better-than-average undistinguished, and like any other mortal he would be well-advised to get it together. C+

A Quiet Storm [Tamla, 1975]
Only "Virgin Man," the most audacious and appropriate song he's written in years, kept Pure Smokey from drifting away. The title cut here announces Robinson's intention of distilling that drift into a style--rhythmically it seems to respond more to his internal state than to any merely physical criterion. Audacious in its way, and sexy, too, I guess, but he can't be my love man until he finds a beat. Which he does--not on the number-one soul hit "Baby That's Backatcha," but as the record is drawing to a close, on "Love Letters" and the coy "Coincidentally." B

Deep in My Soul [Tamla, 1977]
Smokey has a right to the romanticism that has saturated his solo career--ick with kick has always been his specialty--but I get more from the Big Time soundtrack than from Smokey's Family Robinson. And then there's this, in which various Motown hacks attempt to approximate the bright, direct style of a less mature Smokey and come up with four songs (two of which begin each four-cut side) that actually do so. Whereupon Smokey, pro that he is, sings them as if he wrote them himself. B+

Big Time [Tamla, 1977]
Smokey has a right to the romanticism that has saturated his solo career--deepening ick with vocal dimension has always been his metier--but I can't get behind it. So, admiration aside, I actually like this candidly discoid soundtrack throwaway more than I do A Quiet Storm, Smokey's Family Robinson, and so forth. But it does squander much plastic. B-

Where There's Smoke . . . [Tamla, 1979]
Most of Smokey's finest solo album is in the sexy do-the-rock mode of his biggest solo hit, "Cruisin'." Motown purists-come-lately will no doubt be miffed at the snappy discofication of "Get Ready" that opens the "Cruisin'" side. But what cavils will they level at the new songs on side one, which modernize the man's concise, smoldering romanticism with a zip and flair that seemed lost to him years ago? Never count a soul man out--never. A-

Warm Thoughts [Tamla, 1980]
The tardy top-forty success of "Crusin'"--plus maybe, who knows, an evocative title la A Quiet Storm--has created the impression that the follow-up album's the comeback, but commercially and artistically that was last year's Where There's Smoke . . . Smokey's songwriting has sharpened, but not so it isn't enhanced by a nice ersatz medium dance tempo. Granted, you'd probably enjoy these songs just as much if all you did was make out to them, which seems to be the idea. But that's expecting a lot of the old marrieds he plays to these days. B+

Being With You [Tamla, 1981]
Aspiring popsters should welcome this proof that our greatest living poet is able to make do (and then some) with sneaky-fast melodies and rhythms and a vocal style of irreproachably guileless sophistication. Lets them off the, er, hook. Wordwise, that is. Not melodywise, rhythmwise, or voicewise. B+

Yes It's You Lady [Tamla, 1982]
He's lost purity on the high end, but the rich grain of his mature midrange more than compensates, and he's never sung with more care, intelligence, or yearning. Unfortunately, he hasn't settled for such ordinary material in years; his equation of love and "irresistible merchandise," for instance, dishonors his penchant for the prepossessing polysyllable, and that's on the title cut. Does he almost get away with it anyway? Yes, he almost gets away with it anyway. B

Touch the Sky [Tamla, 1983]
Since his turn-of-the-decade renaissance, Smokey's been slipping back among the marginalia, where qualitative distinctions (better than Yes It's You Lady but not Being With You) get fine if not strictly personal. This one's recommended especially to cheating-song fans--"Gimme What You Want" is defiant enough for Millie Jackson, "All My Life's a Lie" defeated enough for George Jones--though I'll admit that what pushed me over the line was the way the positivity of the title cut fades out on a pleading "touch it, touch it" that I'd swear aims lower than the sky. B+

Blame It on Love and All the Great Hits [Tamla, 1983]
Not only does it follow dubious recent biz practice by baiting/larding the compilation with three previously unreleased "hits"-by-association, it leads with them. Not only do all three follow dubious recent Smokey practice by farming out his songwriting, all three are stiffs. So this is hardly the reintroduction those who deserted him in 1968 or 1975 could use. And the corporate vice-president in him approved the whole deal. B-

Essar [Tamla, 1984]
The one about how much he wants to get next to a young thing who's been almost family since she was a baby is as convincing as "Shop Around." But with Smokey convincing doesn't necessarily have anything to do with factual. Which is the only reason "And I Don't Love You" (who else would begin a song "The whippoorwill--whippoor won't"?), "Gone Forever," and the agonizing "I Can't Find" don't have me worried (much) about him and Claudette. Sure there's filler, some of it written by Essar himself--he would try and get away with "Close Encounters of the First Kind" in 1984. But one thing you can say about Smokey's filler that you can't say about anybody else's--Smokey's singing it. B+

One Heartbeat [Motown, 1987]
With executive producer Berry Gordy very hands-on, the man who named the quiet storm goes for his own--middle-aged platinum, just like Tina and Aretha and Dionne and Marvin, God rest his soul. After entrusting the lead single to outsiders who've made pop-funk their metier, he inputs some songwriting, with superpro results that carry the A. But only side two's "Love Don't Give No Reason," one of those shocking domestic melodramas that have dotted his maturity, packs the slightest surprise. Moreover, I doubt he'll get his own. Being perpetually underrated ain't about talent--it's about glamour. As is middle-aged platinum. B

My World: The Definitive Collection [Motown/UME, 2005]
Artistically--he's also been a record executive, not to mention a husband and father--there have been two Smokey Robinsons. What we learn from this misbegotten single-disc overview is that the leader of the Miracles and the solo lothario who named "quiet storm" r&b are very different. The bright, achy, forthright Motown pop of the former is pure greatness at its numerous peaks and almost justifies both discs of Oooo Baby Baby: The Anthology. But toward the end the Miracles wander into slow grooves better encapsulated on the solo Smokey's edition of 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. Beginning with a couple of overwrought new songs, this DVD-baited product muddles the two--even straight chronology would be a sequencing improvement. Definitively not the introduction Robinson deserves. [Blender: 2]

Timeless Love [New Door, 2006]
From the '70s vaults, Quiet Storm as per the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and similars who sound even better ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "You Go to My Head"). *

See Also