the complete idiot’s guide to robert palmer, part two

Written by Music

So. When last we left Robert Palmer, he was in the process of tricking out and slicking up his world-beat soul sound, sending his music in a more contemporary (and at times quite solitary) direction; this decision paid limited dividends on 1979’s Secrets, which presaged — to a certain extent — the way Palmer was heading.

As the ’70s became the ’80s, Robert Palmer the critically lauded sales disappointment became Robert Palmer, Superstar. It didn’t happen overnight (though it definitely seemed that way at the time), and he didn’t do it on the strength of his best music; in fact, one could argue that he sort of lost the plot for awhile. On the other hand, if there’s one thing we’ve seen in these Guides, it’s how completely a little success can destroy an artist’s muse. This never happened to Palmer — not really, anyway. Sure, “Simply Irresistible” was a pale retread of “Addicted to Love” (and “You’re Amazing” was built out of barely functional leftover parts from both) — but the albums those songs came from were just as idiosyncratic as anything else Palmer had ever done.

I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first.


Clues (1980)
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Clues

I mentioned previously that, with this album, Palmer took a New Wave turn; I also tried to assuage the fears of Lost in the ’80s readers — this is not a case of When New Wave Happens to Old Artists. Quite the opposite, really: with Clues, Palmer proved he was just as adept with up-to-the-moment trends as he was with classic soul or Afro-pop.

Case in point: “Looking for Clues” (download), as brilliant an amalgamation of all the above genres as ever came within a whisker of hit status on American radio. It’s got the hard, flat drums and icy synth washes of the best New Wave, and Palmer’s coolly detached falsetto rides comfortably on top; but ah, here’s a tricky shift in time or two, and oh, don’t forget the xylophone solo.

Robert Palmer never really made a bad album (well, not until 1999’s Rhythm & Blues, but we’ll get there in time), but Clues ranks among his absolute finest. “Sulky Girl,” “Johnny and Mary,” “What Do You Care” (download), and “Woke Up Laughing” are some of his best originals; toss in his terrific cover of Gary Numan’s “I Dream of Wires” and a thorough (albeit somewhat perfunctory) interpretation of The Beatles’ “Not A Second Time,” and you’ve got yourself one hell of an album.

Clues was a pretty big hit in the U.K., but didn’t make as much of an impact here in the States. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his big crossover.


Maybe It’s Live (1982)
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Maybe It's Live

Six live cuts and four new studio tracks usually equals a quickie cash-in from the artist, the label, or both; Maybe It’s Live is really no exception. The only reason it bears mentioning here is that it marks the surface point for Palmer’s sublime cover of Jeff Fortang’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck” (download).

The live stuff is okay — Palmer was an old-school soul belter, after all, and knew how to work a stage and a crowd — but not essential.


Pride (1983)
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Pride

Pride isn’t generally regarded as one of Palmer’s stronger albums — in a nutshell, it’s Clues plus heavier synths and sequencers, and minus the consistently strong songwriting — but there’s good stuff in there if you’re willing to look.

It starts off well, with the fitness-craze-lampooning title track (download) and breezy “Deadline” (download), but it’s an uneven affair from there. “Want You More” and “Dance for Me” are dreary synth cabaret numbers, and “The Silver Gun” finds Palmer singing in Urdu for six minutes…on the other hand, his covers of The System’s “You Are in My System” and Kool & The Gang’s “You Can Have It (Take My Heart)” are interesting and well-done.

“System,” in particular, provides a bit of a glimpse into where Palmer would be heading on his next album. Riptide’s quasi-mechanized, bottom-heavy funk/metal hybrid isn’t in full flower here, but you can hear hints of it in “System” and elsewhere.


Riptide (1985)
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Riptide

Though Robert Palmer had toyed with plenty of different styles and genres on his previous albums, one thing had always remained pretty much constant: He made it sound easy. Sure, there was plenty of commitment, and even a little salt, in his vocals on occasion, but for the most part, he never let you see him sweat; regardless of what the music was doing, Palmer remained essentially above the fray. This takes nothing away from his vocal or interpretive skills; not every singer has to shake the pillars of heaven to attract attention. Before Riptide and after, he said more with restraint than most singers ever learn to vocalize.

But for the first time, there’s some consistent grit and bite to Palmer’s vocals, and it proves two things: One, that he knew exactly how best to serve his material; and two, that he was likely a better singer than he ever let on. He wouldn’t let rip like this again until his final album…but more on that later.

Riptide was a sales monster, and deservedly so; I don’t think anybody did a better job of combining ’80s pop sheen with classically nasty blues and funk that year (or perhaps throughout the entire back half of the decade). You know the hits: “Addicted to Love,” “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.” You may even remember Palmer’s brief tenure as lead vocalist of The Power Station, and how that group’s Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson, and Andy Taylor guest on the album. What you probably haven’t heard is the rest of the record, which is quite good.

It isn’t without its flaws, obviously. The brief title track, an even briefer reprise of which closes the album, has nothing to do with anything else here. “Get It Through Your Heart” is dinner music for yuppies. These aren’t wholly bad detours, and they fit in with the big picture where Palmer was concerned — the only straight lines he could tolerate were sartorial, not musical — but they detract from what is otherwise a tremendously successful experiment. Palmer’s cover of Earl King’s “Trick Bag” is a toss-off, but great nonetheless; “Hyperactive” claws and snarls, cheesy synths and all; “Discipline of Love” (download) gave Living Colour some strong shoulders to stand on; and the thunk and roar of “Flesh Wound” (download) might be the best thing here.

Riptide was a sales monster, and one that came at exactly the right time for Palmer; its enormous success enabled him to secure a lucrative contract from EMI, luring him away from Island after over a decade. The big question was what he’d do next.


Heavy Nova (1988)
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Heavy Nova

And here’s the answer: Heavy Nova. As in heavy metal and…bossa nova?

That was the claim, anyway, made around the album’s release. Longtime fans could rightly have expected this to mean that Palmer was truly setting out to meld heavy and nova, but that isn’t really the case. There’s “heavy” here — the thin-but-still-enjoyable title track, the thunderous, skittery “More Than Ever” (download) — and indeed a touch of “nova” in “It Could Happen to You,” the lovely “She Makes My Day,” and “Between Us.” The twain never really meet, however, and all things considered, that’s probably for the best.

The album’s real high points, though, are Palmer’s return to quasi-world-beat experimentation, in the Swiss-Appalachian jungle rave-up of “Change His Ways” (download) and the dizzying global blur of “Casting A Spell” (one of my favorite Palmer songs ever, and don’t worry, you’ll get the remix next week).

Heavy Nova isn’t as consistent an album as Riptide, but after all these years, I think I’ve decided it’s actually the better of the two. The record-buying public didn’t feel the same way, however; though Nova performed respectably, largely on the strength of “Simply Irresistible,” it didn’t have the same impact Riptide had.

Of course, it was a world-conquering smash compared to what Palmer decided to do next. I’ve often wondered how many people were fired at EMI after the Palmer deal went through…but that’s a question for next week. Meet me here for our look at Palmer’s output from 1990-2003!