Joe Cocker’s comeback album is not the disaster his recent debacle in L.A. (during which he was too drunk to perform) was. Whatever his difficulties as a live performer, on record Cocker is far from a lost cause. Admittedly he is not the singer he once was: His voice is ravaged almost beyond belief. But this is what makes I Can Stand a Little Rain so moving. It is a record about pain and decline which, to make its points, cruelly exposes and exploits Cocker’s damaged condition.
One example of this is “You Are So Beautiful,” a Billy Preston song which, at its end, demands that Cocker reach two high notes he doesn’t have a prayer of hitting. He stretches, struggles, quavers and fails; his failure makes the track and the listener hurt, which is precisely the record’s intended effect. This is no rave-up in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen manner — the album aches. Far from being a rocker, I Can Stand a Little Rain is slow, moody, depressed and depressing — and deeply affecting.
Even the titles of the tracks reflect Cocker’s meteoric rise and fall, his confusion and his breakdown: “Performance,” “Guilty,” “Put Out the Light,” “Don’t Forget Me.” The lyrics are more explicit: “I fell down on my face / I tripped and missed my start / I fell and fell alone.” “How come I never do what I’m supposed to do?” “It takes a whole lot o’ medicine, darlin’ / For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.” The painful pertinence of the material is remarkable because it was written by so many different people (Allen Toussaint, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and others).
Two cuts attempt to recapture the manic Cocker of old, but both founder for want of spirit. “Put Out the Light” (the single) is cumbersomely arranged, and “I Get Mad” literally sounds as if Cocker is vomiting. More typical of the album is the title track by producer/arranger Jim Price and Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” The first of these deals with Cocker’s bid to return to the limelight and climaxes as Cocker groans,. “And when I’m on my last goround / I can stand another test.” Webb’s number is the best on the album, an extended metaphor which, if it originally referred to love, in this context has to do with success. Webb’s bland piano and the lovely string arrangement are in jarring contrast to Cocker’s tormented vocal, and the discrepancy between voice and arrangement further accentuates Cocker’s alienation.
A note on the jacket, “Special Thanks to Joe Cocker,” suggests that Cocker was out of it while the album was being recorded. Indeed at times he seems to have been propped up and plugged into Price’s production. But the distance between his vocals and music simply dramatizes Cocker’s plight, and the suffering in his voice is so intense that no setting could enhance or dilute it.