What is this man's secret? Celebrating 50 years in the music business, Motown legend Smokey Robinson still possesses a gorgeous voice and writes unforgettable songs. On his latest album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun, Robinson shows R&B crooners over half his age how to not only compose a great tune, but sell it as well.
Beginning with the title track, Robinson sets the romantic tone with his sultry delivery, accompanied by soft guitar. The album was recorded with the band and Robinson performing in the studio together, and this live approach adds depth to the track. While the tune concerns a man reluctant to return home after a night of passion—certainly a theme addressed many times before—it's Robinson's voice that distinguishes “Time Flies” from other similar songs. “Here we lay/And we want it to last/We take every extra second we can get,” he virtually whispers, the lyrics resembling almost an inner dialog.
While Robinson remains one of music's best songwriters (“Shop Around,” “Tears of A Clown,” “Who's Loving You” and “Cruisin'” represent just a few masterpieces from his vast catalog), he proves he can interpret others' songs as well. The first single, a cover of Norah Jones's “Don't Know Why,” shows his skill at phrasing and dramatizing the lyrics with his voice. View the video here:
Two neo-soul singers stop by to pay tribute—Joss Stone duets with Robinson on the seductive “You're The One for Me,” while India.Arie joins him for “You're Just My Life.” Stone compliments his smooth voice quite well, the song evoking a ’70s slow jam vibe. While Stone can sometimes oversing, she utilizes her smoky voice with restraint here. “You're Just My Life” fits nicely with such classics as “Ooh Baby Baby,” with India.Arie adding to the romance with her clear, deep voice. Both singers were wise choices for Robinson's duetting partners, as they are obviously well-versed in classic soul.
Not limiting himself to ballads, Robinson reveals his funky side on “Girlfriend,” a mid-tempo ode to his love. “You are my girlfriend/You are my lady/You are my woman” he confidently states, an acoustic guitar keeping the tight rhythm. Fellow legend Carlos Santana lends a bluesy touch to “Please Don't Take Your Love,” where Robinson shows how his falsetto can take on a grittier edge. Percussion and Santana's guitar give the song a Spanish spin (although Robinson sings in different languages at various points). As usual, Santana dazzles with his virtuosity, particularly in his solo. Like the aforementioned “Cruisin'?” Then “That Place”will be sure to please, with its similar chord changes and Robinson's sultry falsetto. If any of Time Flies When You're Having Fun's tracks embody his trademark sound, it's this song.
Wisely, Robinson sticks to what he does best—classic soul. But on tracks like “One Time,” the bass-driven rhythm updates his sound without overpowering that classic voice. “Love Bath” also features a heavier beat, but still retains that mid-tempo, laid-back sound. While the lyrics are sexy, they never cross the line into crassness. Similarly, “Satisfy You” addresses the relationship in general rather than the bedroom (the guitar work on this track is particularly beautiful as well). Modern R&B artists who rely on sexually explicit imagery could take a lesson from these lyrics—less is often more. Time Flies When You're Having Fun then concludes with a surprise bonus track that is definitely timely.
Robinson defies age on Time Flies When You're Having Fun, as he sounds just as good as he did in his Motown days. He shrewdly stays with his signature smooth sound, yet incorporates modern instrumental touches in order to reach younger audiences. However, his voice remains front-and-center, with these additions (as well as the guest singers) never overpowering him. In what is one of the best R&B albums of the year, Time Flies While You're Having Fun teaches others how to write ear-catching songs, and then how to communicate the lyrics's emotions. Like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Marvin Gaye, and other master song interpreters, Robinson shows that thinking about the words one is singing proves crucial in connecting a song to an audience.