Death by Power Ballad: Robin Zander, “Time Will Let You Know”

Wouldn’t it be cool to be Cheap Trick’s Robin “The Voice” Zander?  I mean, the guy’s, like, 85 years old and looks the same as he did on the cover of Heaven Tonight; he can probably still woo any chick he wants from his nightly audience; and, even though he’s probably tired of singing “I Want You to Want Me” every night, he gets to sing “I Want You to Want Me” every night and hear the wildly appreciative applause of the dozens of people (or thousands, if he’s opening for Journey) who’ve come to hear him sing “I Want You to Want Me.”

But Robin Zander has a sensitive side, too. Exhibit A: “The Flame.” I absolutely love “The Flame.”  There is nobody else—and I mean nobody else—who could take a line as bad as “Whenever you need someone to lay your heart and head upon” and make it sound like a bolt from Zeus himself. Cheap Trick take a lot of shit for recording it, but if there is shit to be taken, it should be Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham, who wrote the thing, partaking of said excrement. Cheap Trick turned their slow dance-by-numbers ditty into a towering achievement in the power ballad arts.

In 1993, Zander released a guest-heavy solo album, which did about as well as Cheap Trick’s studio output of the era (Woke Up with a Montster, anyone?). Amid the poppy hooks and all star cameos (Maria McKee, Dr. John, Stevie Nicks, and most of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), Zander placed “Time Will Let You Know,” a Big Statement treatise on taking the great leap of faith and allowing oneself to fall in love. Composed by Zander and someone named Billy O. Who (gotta be a pseudonym, like Prince on those Apollonia 6 and Martika albums—put your guesses in the Comments section), “Time” bundles hope, longing, and resignation to the fates in one massive lighter-worthy package.

The track starts quietly—just Zander and a piano, addressing the object of his affection in hushed exasperation:

Look at you and look at me
Now what are we supposed to be
We’re so afraid of something new
You know it’s true

You turn around and then it’s gone
You can’t be sure if it’s the same old song
We’re so afraid of everyone
Afraid of the sun

There’s a maturity here that is quite stunning in the context of the power ballad form. Zander, a freshly minted 40-year-old at the time, isn’t merely chasing tail, looking for a quick lay, offering himself for the laying upon of heart or head. It’s a weary sentiment, a weariness of wariness, of the fear that keeps one from taking the chance on something as potentially transforming as finding the love of one’s life, after a lifetime of disappointments. “Please let this be love,” he pleads in the buildup to the chorus, and The Voice so plainly bears the sadness of those disappointments, the weight is almost too much for the song to hold up. There needs to be a release worthy of the weight.

The chorus more than fits the bill. Zander goes into that glorious upper register as strings and acoustic guitars swirl around him. The lyrics are a study in conflict, first acknowledging the active participation required in commencing a relationship (“It’s all up to me / It’s all up to you”), then resigning himself to the fate of the moment (Whatever will be / Whatever you do / Time will let you know). That tag line—“Time will let you know”—comes across as authoritative and delicate all at once, as Zander takes on all that weight by himself.

Back into the second verse, he notes the passage of time and the unavoidability of aging:

You see your folks and all their friends
Ain’t it funny how the story ends
You wonder why they’re hanging on
When it’s gone

What can you do? he seems to ask. A chance lost is impossible to regain. The verse is particularly poignant on the live version of “Time” included on Cheap Trick’s live album Silver. Delivered by Zander’s daughter, Holland, the verse is played as The Voice’s younger self (albeit, in a female version of himself—Zander is nothing if not sensitive guy) addressing his older counterpart.

Back on the studio version, the chorus returns, a mixture of multiple Zanders and an actual gospel choir. Suddenly, what was authoritative and delicate mere seconds before becomes doubly authoritative, triply so on the third go-round (after the requisite guitar solo) as the Zanders fall back and the choir is given full rein to testify behind The Voice. Overblown?  Probably. In the hack hands of, say, Michael Bolton, such a setting would serve as a license to go into full histrionic mode and caterwaul away until a merciful fadeout. Zander, however, melds into the greater collective, and gains more power as a result.

And then … there’s quiet again. Ending the song as he began it, Zander repeats the first verse with just voice and piano. The soft-loud-soft dynamic complete, The Voice falls silent once more, drawing a satisfying conclusion to his most satisfying midlife meditation.

Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a writer, teacher, wage earner, and all-around evil genius who spends most of his time holed up in his cluttered compound in central PA. His favorite color is ultramarine blue. His imaginary band Mr. Vertigo tours every summer. You can follow Rob on Twitter, if you desire.