by Ben Greenman
Robert Cray has been one of the most reliable pleasures of soul and blues for almost three decades now, an assessment that sounds like faint praise but shouldn’t. Cray is still mostly remembered for his 1986 release, “Strong Persuader,” which remains one of the best albums of his career, because it would have been one of the best albums of anyone’s career. Cray released five studio LPs in the ensuing decade and has maintained an enviable recording and touring schedule, and, while that professionalism steadily increases his body of work, it also means that individual albums tend to pass by somewhat anonymously.
It would be a mistake if that same fate befell his sixteenth album, “Nothin but Love” (Mascot). The leadoff track, “Won’t Be Coming Home,” has a familiar story—woman leaves man, man can’t get past it—stretched over a menacing keyboard line and a surging chorus. As always, it’s bolstered by Cray’s writing, which has the compression of short fiction: “Two days later I get a letter / A picture of a room in some hotel / Sitting framed up on the table / A picture I know so well.” One of the things that made “Strong Persuader” not just a pleasure but a classic was the unreliability of its narrators: the tortured cuckold of “Smoking Gun,” the self-doubting ladies’ man of “Right Next Door (Because of Me).” That’s the case here as well. Why does the narrator of “Worry” feel that passive anxiety is the only option available to him as a loved one descends into a life of ill repute?
Musically, Cray remains on firm footing. There are, as always, nods to his forebears—Albert Collins in the slashing, squealing solos, Otis Redding in the forceful vocals—but he’s been doing this long enough, and well enough, that he’s mostly just himself. On recent albums, Cray has sometimes fallen victim to the Curse of the Ambitious Composition. “Truce,” the closing track from his 2009 album, “This Time,” was a jazzy, understated, and borderline soporific five-and-a-half-minute portrait of a fraught relationship. What it lacked is what “Nothin but Love” has in abundance, and that’s forward motion. “Fix This” glides along on a reggae lilt and tasteful piano, until it reaches its chorus, all soul organ and full-throated vocals. “Side Dish” uses food metaphors to sketch out the facts of infidelity (it’s elevated above novelty by superb playing and by the plaintive closing line, “Please take me back”). And even though “I’m Done Cryin’” is nearly nine minutes long and a message song at that—it chronicles the emotional effects of job loss—it’s taut and straightforward, a letter from the economic front. ♦