A big deal is always made about the role Bob Marley played in the popularization of reggae music among mainstream audiences. While it’s true Marley was the genre’s first big superstar, and at the time of his death easily the most well known reggae performer, he wasn’t the only one responsible for bringing reggae to the attention of non-Jamaican listeners. The soundtrack from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come introduced the world to a young Jimmy Cliff. Not only did he have the lead role in the movie, he also sang and wrote the two most popular songs on the soundtrack, “The Harder They Come” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want”. I don’t know about anyone else, but I heard this album and Jimmy Cliff long before ever hearing anything by Marley or his group the Wailers.
Unfortunately for Cliff, he never seemed to catch the public’s imagination in the same way as his compatriots Marley and Peter Tosh did. In spite of writing some really wonderful tunes, “Many Rivers To Cross”, to this day the most poignant reggae song recorded, and “Pressure Drop”, covered by The Clash and other punk bands in the 1980s, after all these years he’s still searching for the breakout album that will push him to the next level of popularity. In fact he makes no bones about it in the press materials for his latest CD , Rebirth on Universal Music Enterprises (UMe), where he is quoted as saying, “I want to become a stadium act”.
Unfortunately this desire seems to have an adverse effect on his music. When an artist, even one as good as Cliff, sets his sights on a specific type of success rather than simply going about creating his art, it can’t help but impact on what he creates. Consciously or not, all his choices are going to be guided by, in this case a desire for popularity and commercial success, and his creations can’t help but be coloured by those desires. In the case of Rebirth, the result has been an album that doesn’t live up to the expectations created by Cliff’s previous material. That’s not to say this is a bad CD or the music is crap. It’s just not in the same league as other music I’ve heard from him.
Musically the songs don’t seem to want to make a full commitment to reggae, as if he’s trying to make them more accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately, the result is they lose the solid footing that a reggae back beat would have given them. While there are plenty of examples of music which have melded reggae with other genres with various degrees of success, here they just sound like reggae songs watered down by pop hooks. What’s depressing is listening to the couple of songs where Cliff’s true potential shines through. His cover of The Clash’s “Guns Of Brixton” is a great example of what he is capable of. He delivers the words with passion and dignity, keeping alive the challenge of the original version (“When they kick out your front door/How you gonna come?”) while showing compassion for those pushed to having no more choices.
But unfortunately the majority of the songs on the disc are more like “Reggae Music”. The song is a simplistic and sentimental look at the history of reggae over the past 50 years, tracing both Cliff’s career and a changing world. The chorus, “Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now/Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now”, seems to imply no matter what’s happening in the world, reggae will make things better. While the sentiment itself is harmless enough I guess, it’s undermined by the fact that musically the song is an uptempo pop song with the reggae influence almost buried under its cheery refrain and catchy tune.
Then there’s the song “Outsider”, where the music contradicts the purported message of the lyrics. For while Cliff is proclaiming his outsider status, his individuality, the music belies that message by sounding like it would be comfortable on a top 40 television show. This is not the music of the streets of Kingston Jamaica or songs about injustice, but rather the stuff they play for tourists at resorts that won’t offend anybody’s sensibilities. I can’t help but remember a movie Cliff was in with Robin Williams called Club Paradise. In it, Cliff was the leader of a band who were capable of playing down and dirty reggae, but when the police come around they immediately switch to something that sounds like Boney M. would play.
Now there’s no way even on his worst day Cliff could sound like Boney M. However, listening to the songs on Rebirth I can’t help but feel disappointed as they sound little or nothing like the music I’m used to hearing from him. Sure the tunes are catchy enough and he still has a great voice, but the heart and soul seem to have been removed. Cliff is one of the greats of reggae, but unfortunately you can’t really tell it from this attempt. Go back and grab a copy of the soundtrack to The Harder They Come or even just listen to “Many Rivers To Cross”, if you really want to experience him at his best.