Smokey Robinson is that rare pop singer whose rhapsodic lyricism hasn’t diminished with approaching middle age. Indeed, time has added a metaphysical depth to his art. The postadolescent Romeo who created “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh, Baby Baby” exudes the same sweetness today he did fifteen years ago, but his tenor and falsetto have shaded into a single dusky croon. Robinson’s mature interpretive approach is likewise an extension of his younger self. Whereas Frank Sinatra’s pleading ardor and Billie Holiday’s gutteral enthusiasm turned cynical and tragic respectively, Smokey Robinson’s faith in the redemptive power of erotic love continues unabated. In Robinson’s musical world, sexual happiness isn’t the product of spiritual equilibrium but its source.
The use of the “feminine” falsetto by male soul singers is, of course, an accepted R&B convention. A lover in the thrall of passion expresses his adoration by ritualistically assuming a feminine vulnerability. Often, however, the ritual is enacted with an unmistakably predatory whine. But Smokey Robinson has always eschewed outright lasciviousness, preferring instead the worshipful approach of someone whose vulnerability is childlike as well as dreamily romantic. In Forest Hairston’s “I Hear the Children Singing,” Robinson muses: “Why didn’t we stay young/So in love/I hear the children singing/But I hear a tiny voice cry/ … I’m only a child.” This number, like most of the compositions on Being with You, is a modest pop ballad of no great distinction, yet it’s utterly transfigured by the singer’s interpretation, which refuses to exploit it for pathos or nostalgia. Rather than being embarrassed or defensive about the child inside the man, Robinson’s attitude is gently protective.
It’s amazing what subtle vocal inflections can do for material that’s less than terrific, but again and again on Being with You, Smokey Robinson performs unassuming aesthetic miracles. In contrast to last year’s Warm Thoughts (which, with A Quiet Storm, is the pinnacle of Robinson’s solo career), the tunes and production on the new album are smaller-scaled. There aren’t any grand ballads to compare with “What’s in Your Life for Me,” no lavish production numbers like “Melody Man.” Instead, the heart of Being with You consists of simple midtempo songs, produced with a light touch in the spirit of the artist’s mellow Sixties hits.
Three of the record’s four Robinson originals look back to more innocent days. “Food for Thought,” a reggae-calypso hybrid that warns against everything from pollution to adultery, is the exception, and Smokey Robinson sounds uncomfortable singing it. In “Being with You,” a breezy little ballad embellished with horns, Robinson takes the same guileless tone that characterized his earliest love songs and begs a lover not to leave him. “If You Wanna Make Love (Come ’round Here)” echoes the easy-going sinuousness of “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” while “You Are Forever” extends a promise of eternal love so beautifully and directly that you practically forget how shopworn the sentiment is.
Though Being with You features four compositions by other writers, their fidelity to Robinson’s style is such that he might as well have penned them himself. Mike Piccirillo and Gary Goetzman’s “Can’t Fight Love” suggests a funk-flavored “I Second That Emotion,” and their “Who’s Sad” recalls the mournful rapture of “Ooh, Baby Baby.” If these tunes ultimately lack the irreducible emotional power of their prototypes, the singer’s limpid timbre and relaxed animation give them more life than they’ll probably ever have again.
Following the sophisticated Warm Thoughts, Being with You seems almost resolutely old-fashioned. But underneath its gloss, Warm Thoughts was just as traditional, since it too expressed Robinson’s awesome commitment to romantic love. In a time when pop music grows more and more sexually explicit, pure exaltation is increasingly difficult to evoke with much conviction. After all, instant sex has rendered many of the conventions of classical courtship obsolete. Don’t think, however, that Robinson’s songs aren’t filled with sex. They are. But in this man’s art, sex isn’t a fast roll in the hay, it’s sweet manna shared during a leisurely stroll into paradise. Smokey Robinson creates that paradise every time he opens his mouth to sing. While his is a world in which tears are copious, the tears are as natural — and desirable — as rain. And the sun, when it shines, is dazzling.