A Quiet Storm begins with the sound of a summer shower, a flute, tremulous congas and vibes and Smokey breathlessly caressing the words, “Soft and warm, a quiet storm.” As the title tune progresses, the sensuality of its lyrics and the loose, improvisational feel of the backup suggest that the album is going to be Robinson’s What’s Going On or Innervisions, a formula-defying statement of both personal and social import. But Robinson is moved neither by Marvin Gaye’s macho sensibilities nor by Stevie Wonder’s semimystical mental images, and he has more pop expertise than either. With 18 years of singing, writing and producing behind him, he naturally passes over both self-celebration and prophecy in favor of love and happiness. And his instincts for the perfect hook, the well-placed quaver and the arresting turn of phrase mean that even his seven-minute songs (“Storm,” “Happy”) retain the thematic compactness and lustrous patina of Motown singles.
There were no seven-minute songs on Pure Smokey, an album of brilliant singles which produced no hits. Ironically Storm and the first single excerpted from it, “Baby That’s Backatcha,” took off immediately. The album offers irrepressibly upbeat lyrics, mellow and jazz-tinged instrumental passages, bouquets of sweetness and restrained funk flavorings. Intriguing production touches abound. On “Love Letters,” a hesitating fuzz-tone bass pattern is repeatedly undercut by an atempo flute/synthesizer unison. “Wedding Song” is burdened by the sappiest words Robinson has written (“Oh what a beautiful day to take a vow on/Pray that the things we say will last from now on”), but a recurring guitar riff, performed with great sensitivity by Marv Tarplin, redeems it.
In fact, Robinson’s much touted abilities as a poetic lyricist aren’t very important here, the sexy directness of “Storm” and “Backatcha” notwithstanding. His production and singing carry the album. Even “Happy,” a Robinson/Michel Legrand opus from Lady Sings the Blues that fairly oozes sentimentality, succeeds as believable pop because of a soulful, crying vocal and a careful, varied arrangement. It may not represent a very promising direction, but the languid intimacy of “Quiet Storm,” the intricate instrumental arrangements on “Backatcha” and “Love Letters,” and the prominence given to Tarplin’s classy guitar throughout the album are evidence that one of black music’s brightest lights is still a dynamic creative force. We can look forward to many more delights from him; if success were going to spoil him, it would have done so long ago.