Gospel is the truth. And country music is the truth.
Such is the Wisdom of Solomon. Solomon Burke, that is. The Bishop. The Wonder Boy Preacher. The King of Rock 'n' Soul.
Burke's appetites, entrepreneurship and vocal prowess -- not just his range and control, but also his command of dynamics -- know few bounds. He's crooned hits by Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold (with "Just Out Of Reach", he became the first R&B singer to have a nationwide smash singing country music) and can still, at age 66, declaim like the full gospel preacher and bishop he in fact is. The sound of Burke's voice conveys such force of truth that it can be described only as "soul" -- a transcendental rather than circumscribing category that, by most accounts, was coined with the singer in mind, if not by Burke himself.
Except that Don't Give Up On Me, Burke's debut for Fat Possum, doesn't sound anything like "Cry To Me" or "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love", the early '60s hits with which he staked his claim to the title "King of Rock 'n' Soul." Formally speaking, Don't Give Up On Me isn't a soul record at all. In place of the pressing, percussive rhythms that have long incited Burke's preachments are the slackened beats you'd expect to hear on the albums producer Joe Henry releases under his own name -- beats that rock, shuffle, shamble and swing, but are often too phlegmatic and oblique to catch fire, or even smolder.
Not that this should be surprising given the cast of writers Henry tapped for the album, most of whom don't trade in anything remotely akin to soul music. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan chip in their best Bob Dylan impression ("Diamond In Your Mind"); Dylan rewrites "How Blue Can You Get" ("Stepchild"). All Henry and Nick Lowe have to offer are themselves, Lowe in his current swizzle-stick vogue.
There's nothing wrong with this, mind you; apart from "The Judgment", a labored portent from Elvis Costello -- "little hands of concrete" indeed -- all of it would have made for a perfectly serviceable program of boomer-friendly, boho blues and rock. That is, were it not for the imperious King Solomon, who, knowingly imploring us not to give up on him on the title track, proves the X factor that ultimately makes the album more an expression of Burke the artist than of Henry the auteur.
We're talking, after all, about the man who, way back in 1965, transformed the drudge plaint of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" into a juking slave narrative-cum-civil rights anthem. The man whose popularity in the early '60s rivaled that of James Brown; whose sales kept Atlantic Records afloat during a particularly lean couple of years; whose pleading and exhorting provided a blueprint for the vocal styles of Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and -- from his "fa fa's" to the cherry-picked "Down In The Valley" -- Otis Redding. The man whose utter, yet typically unassuming, mastery of his instrument caused Jerry Wexler, the producer of hits by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, to name Burke his favorite soul singer ever.
All of which is but a prelude to saying that Burke, with his regular church organist Rudy Copeland testifying right in line, turns much of the otherwise bohemian rhapsody of Don't Give Up On Me into a soulful wonder, even if it really isn't a soul record. A pair of Van Morrison originals galvanize the proceedings (not surprisingly, given the sweet lilt that buoys so much of Morrison's hybridized Caledonia soul). "Fast Train", a cautionary tale based on the gospel standard "This Train", lends itself particularly well to Burke's Conway Twitty-like fluidity and understatement. "Diamond In Your Mind" exudes a hymnal grandeur that suggests the engine in question is now bound for glory, while the picaresque "Stepchild" offers not just comic relief, but a mile-wide, swamp-steeped groove.
Other than the AC-in-search-of-R&B of "Soul Searchin'", though, we really don't get a taste of Burke's fevered testimony until the album's final two tracks, and even then, it's not his trademark synthesis-and-then-some of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Nor do we get any of his Opry-inspired recitations, but rather the weathered, unhurried, yet still supple voice of an elder who has nothing left to prove. That's certainly the sense you get from the elegiac, album-closing "Sit This One Out", the tagline of its chorus as much a statement of love's discontents as it is of Burke's ambivalence about abandoning his signature style: "There's nothing to do now/And I don't have a clue how to rise above it all." At least that's the way it seems until, weary yet resolute, he changes the last line of the chorus: "I think I'll have to sit and work this one out."
It's a stirring turnabout, an affirmation presaged by the album's penultimate track and high point, the funk-fortified "None Of Us Are Free", a paean to justice through solidarity cowritten by Brill Building vets Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. "None of us are free, if one of us is chained," Burke admonishes on the chorus, the Blind Boys Of Alabama intoning implacably behind him. "If you just look around you/You gonna see what I say/'Cause the world's getting smaller each passing day," Burke presses on, marching to the final chorus, which he and the Blind Boys chant eight more times.
It's a litany that couldn't be timelier. Indeed, if everyone would sing this song, it just might, as the Bishop prophesied long ago, save the whole world.