Album Review: Jimmy Cliff’s Rebirth

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Jimmy Cliff is a certified legend. He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A Grammy winner. An actor. And, still, a tremendous performer, even in that stage of life where the sun has begun its descent.  Rebirth is Cliff’s latest effort — his first full-length album in seven years — and it exhibits his awareness of the inevitable fate that each day brings closer, even as he remains undeterred in his push for societal improvements that would benefit future generations.  Luckily, this legend is one that continues to grow and walk amongst men.

There’s a duality within Cliff’s themes, one where we must acknowledge the hurdles remaining on the path to a more egalitarian society, but a path where whistling while you work towards that goal is a prerequisite. The album’s opening track, for example, “World Upside Down,” transports the listener to the islands from its first drum fill even as its lyrics highlight how injustice and discordance remain unabated in modern society.

Inspired by an African trip that provided plenty of artistic fodder, Cliff is disposed towards action. While his influence may not be as widespread as it once was, he remains determined to make the most of the time he has remaining to effect positive change. That sentiment is highlighted in “One More,” an impossibly catchy hook-driven exhortation that just might be the best reggae track in decades. It does everything that reggae can at its best. It actively involves the listener in a theme of social change and compels you to dance, exhorting one to reach towards a higher existence in both physical exertion and mental awareness. And as good as the primary version of the track is, the album’s alternate take somehow finds a way to take it up an additional notch.

It’s an album worthy of repeated listening, but one track that falls a bit short is Cliff’s cover of The Clash’s legendary song, “Guns of Brixton.” As befitting a song of its stature, this is one that has been covered many times with varying degrees of success. One recent version, Diplo/Santigold’s “Guns of Brooklyn,” does figure out a way to add something poignant. You’d think that – of all people – Cliff’s version would be likely to succeed. But, while the arrangement is a smart and smooth take on the original, Cliff’s vocals don’t possess either Paul Simonon’s snarl or the desperation that the well-known lyrics require. It’s not an easy song to do, and one that requires embracing its dark side without positivity.  Unfortunately Cliff’s vocals sound a bit too sunny…and something about this song being presented with a silver lining in its dark cloud is unfortunately ironic.

Another cover – produced alongside its original author – yields better results, as Cliff’s strong voice matches well with Rancid’s classic, “Ruby Soho.” It must be a bit strange to re-record a song with its creator – kind of like sleeping with a woman as her ex-husband critiques your technique — but one can hardly quibble with a version Tim Armstrong himself approved. (He also produced, helped write, and played guitar on the album.) In this take, Cliff’s sunny disposition does lend itself to the song’s native pathos. And, on this song and beyond, we are reminded to thank the late Joe Strummer for suggesting that Cliff and Armstrong collaborate, a mutual friend who clearly foresaw what their union could yield.

“Rebel Rebel” is another track of note, and one destined to rock audiences harder than they would believe possible from a man of his age. In this case, Cliff’s longevity is attributable to his indomitable spirit and deep well of talent. They both serve him well on Rebirth, and ultimately, Cliff has put together one of the year’s better albums. It’s a throwback of sorts, for sure, but a welcome one that never feels anachronistic. Helpfully, Cliff’s underlying ethos and higher calling are addressed directly in “Reggae Music” — an autobiographical song that chronicles the beginnings of his career 50 years ago (at age 14) — plainly stating that reggae music is both about feeling good and the pursuit of truth.

It’s refreshing, after all, to hear songs about something less ego-centric than the pain of unrequited love, gawking at a woman’s figure, or the novelty of passing along one’s phone number to a stranger. And for that, we all owe a big round of thanks to Jimmy Cliff for rescuing us from the flotsam and jetsam of modern culture and pushing us to reach for a purpose higher than our own self-interest. We owe him a debt gratitude for once again saving us from ourselves.

*Corrected: Paul Simonon wrote and sung “Guns of Brixton,” not Joe Strummer. It was the first song to feature Simonon as lead composer and singer.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.