Don’t Explain (1990)
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Robert Palmer plus Steve Stevens plus Teo Macero equals Don’t Explain, eighteen tracks that nobody knew quite what to make of in 1990 — a mystery the intervening fifteen years and change hasn’t done much to solve, by the way.

It’s hard to know what to make of Palmer’s tenure at EMI in general, actually; his albums for the label are equally full of bald-faced chart grabs and befuddling artistic decisions. Explain is split more or less in half: Side One is made up of contemporary-sounding, harder-rocking stuff, on which Stevens is allowed to pretty much run rampant. This was a decision that must have seemed sound at the time, what with Stevens being an in-demand guitarist, but the tracks haven’t aged well at all. The cover of Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember” (download), in particular, is a horrible, screeching nightmare; it’s not only the worst cover Palmer ever recorded, but also a compelling argument for, in the words of one of my friends at the time, “breaking off the guitarist’s fingers and shoving them up his ass.”

Meanwhile, Side Two consists of strings-laden pop chestnuts. This sequence was ostensibly part of the soundtrack for a — wait for it — “futuristic musical,” a project that, though it thankfully never came to fruition, does a fine job of taking Don’t Explain from “middling release” to “schizophrenic train wreck” status. He’d made a career out of convincingly assembling seemingly incompatible parts, but this time, Palmer bit off more than he could chew; even if, say, his cover of Mose Allison’s “Top 40″ (download) is charmingly spot-on, it still doesn’t jibe with “Your Mother Should Have Told You” or “You Can’t Get Enough of a Good Thing” — and the album’s half-and-half sequencing only highlights this.

I said a couple of weeks ago that Robert Palmer only recorded one bad album — 1999’s Rhythm & Blues — and I stand by that statement.

But Don’t Explain is not a good album.

Ridin’ High (1992)
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Ridin' High

For better or worse, Robert Palmer was an artist frequently ahead of his time; with Ridin’ High — an album that ominously presages similarly foul standards joints by artists such as Natalie Cole and Rod Stewart — it was for worse.

There’s nothing really horrible about this record; it’s essentially the second half of Don’t Explain stretched out to full-album length (Palmer even poached “Aeroplane” from Explain). It’s just that — from the cover photo of Palmer in a white dinner jacket on through to the closing notes of the final song — it’s really fucking dull.

It definitely didn’t help his image; casual listeners saw him on The Tonight Show, doing a duet with Carnie Wilson on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (download) and saw the logical conclusion to the dapper, shallow image Palmer had been hiding behind for years. Longtime fans, if they bought the record at all, were probably asleep by the time Johnny Winter popped up on the album-closing “Hard Head” (download).

And the label? It’s hard to imagine how EMI must have felt when Palmer delivered Ridin’ High. They’d signed a guy coming off a monster Number One hit single and platinum-selling album, a single and album that seemed to be the perfect culmination for a brilliantly chameleonic career — a springboard into a series of hit records. What they ended up getting was an exercise in quickly, severely diminishing returns.

It’s sort of baffling even now. I mean, prior to Riptide, Palmer wasn’t what you’d call a major artist, but he made consistently clear choices (not to mention high-quality albums). Did he lose the plot with Don’t Explain and Ridin’ High, or was he just stubbornly following his muse? What kind of artistic statement was he really trying to make here, if any? Or was he just having fun with other peoples’ money?

Honey (1994)
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All things being equal, this is the album Palmer should have released as the follow-up to Heavy Nova (and actually, parts of it do indeed sound as if they might have been recorded in 1989). In terms of sound, it’s a return to form for him — you’ve got your world-beat touches, like on “Honey A” and “Honey B” (download); you’ve got your guitar-god antics (this time courtesy of Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt) on tracks like “Wham Bam Boogie” and a fun cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want”; and you’ve got smooth balladry, like on “Know By Now” and “You Blow Me Away” (download).

But by this point, it was simply too little, too late. He’d been forgotten by radio, and in any case, had likely damaged his relationship with EMI beyond repair. Honey was poorly, barely promoted; it ended his EMI contract, and sent his recording career into hibernation.

Woke Up Laughing (1998)
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“Hey,” you might be saying. “I thought these damn Idiot’s Guides weren’t supposed to include compilations and the like. And yet here’s this. What gives?”

If you’re saying that, you’re right, but I couldn’t leave this particular compilation out. At this point, there are probably more Robert Palmer collections than Robert Palmer studio albums, and most of them can’t help but fall short when it comes to painting a complete picture of Palmer as an artist; his output was just too varied. Woke Up Laughing doesn’t accomplish this either, but it’s so well-done that it doesn’t matter. Not only is this arguably the best Palmer compilation you can buy, it’s probably my favorite Robert Palmer album, period.

And here’s why: Palmer took fourteen of his favorite “world music” songs, reworked them — sometimes extensively, sometimes not — wrote some typically droll liner notes, and the result is an album as cohesive as anything he’d ever recorded. Though the songs are pulled from throughout his career, they flow into one another seamlessly, and some — like the remixed “Housework” (download) and stripped-back “Casting A Spell” (download) — are substantially better than the “official” versions.

Rhythm & Blues (1999)
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And here, finally, is the dud.

For anyone who ever wanted to know what Robert Palmer would sound like if he fell face-first into a vat of drum machines, or accidentally recorded a latter-day Daryl Hall solo album, Rhythm & Blues is for you. There is neither actual rhythm nor blues on or anywhere around this album (except perhaps the blues felt by fans who bought it). Not only does he include a horrible reworking of his own “Work to Make It Work,” he also does a song called “Tennis,” which compares love to…oh, you know.

Oh yes, and then there’s “Let’s Get It On 99″ (download).

The only thing worth listening to on the whole album is Palmer’s tender, terrific version of Lowell George’s “Twenty Million Things” (download). The fact that it closes out Rhythm & Blues means that what would otherwise be an almost completely negative listening experience manages to end on a positive note.

Thankfully, so does Palmer’s career. I’d hate to finish the Guide here. Luckily, I don’t have to.

Drive (2003)
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Perhaps sensing that he’d misled consumers by titling his previous release Rhythm & Blues, Palmer followed it up with an album of actual blues. Drive is a raw, throaty record, as full of piss and vinegar as anything in Palmer’s catalog; though he couldn’t help but filter these songs through his own broad sensibilities — witness the salty calypso of “Stella” — they’re no less authentic: Just listen to him howl through “Mama Talk to Your Daughter” (download) and “Why Get Up?” (download).

There’s only one original here, the Carl Carlton co-write “Lucky,” but it doesn’t matter; not only are his vocals looser and warmer than ever, the whole thing sounds like it was made for fun — like the tape machine was just left on as an afterthought. It doesn’t drive so much as amble, which actually sums up the collected works of Palmer in a nutshell, making Drive as fitting an album as any with which to end a career.

And end his career it did. Robert Palmer died unexpectedly in September 2003, the victim of a sudden heart attack. It’s always tempting to ascribe the death of a rock star in his 50s to excesses of the illegal variety, but from all indications, Palmer eschewed the rock & roll lifestyle more or less completely. His doctors had warned him about high cholesterol, but beyond that, he was as healthy as any middle-aged smoker and drinker could reasonably expect to be.

So, you see — to get back to my earlier point — there are a lot more than ten measly reasons why Robert Palmer was cool. There were hundreds of them; I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Set out to learn the rest for yourself — if you love music, you’ll be glad for the journey.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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