Robert Downey Jr is well known as a talented actor, and in more recent years as someone with a troubled life, this manifested in his well publicized problems with the American legal authorities and its judicial system. Throughout the 1990’s he was arrested numerous times for drugs and alcohol related offenses, these ending in jail time. Out of jail in 2000, he ended up back in jail several times by the end of 2001…he has had a troubled life, despite his critical successes.
His acting career in movies and on television have been largely successful with a string of awards and even an Oscar nomination for his role as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. In 2008 he gained a popular boost to his acting career, as Tony Starke in Iron Man. However what has been largely overlooked during this time period, is his talent as a musician.
Robert has contributed, a number of songs for movies and television, including,the movies The Pick- Up Artist, Mr Willowby’s Christmas, Friends And Lovers, Heart And Souls and Chaplin. Perhaps his best known performances were on popular television show Ally McBeal, where he performed: Bob Segers Chances Are with Vonda Shepard, White Christmas with Calista Flockhart, and Sherry Darling.
Apart from performing other peoples material, Robert Downey JR has also written his own material and been fortunate to get them included in the sound tracks of a few movies, namely the theme song from Too Much Sun and Snake from Two Girls And A Guy. Before the subject of this review, his first full length album The Futurist, Robert has had material released only as part of soundtrack albums and a short EP called Smile in 1993, and that sadly has been that…so far.
The first time I became aware of Robert Downey Jr as a musician, was a performance after an interview on a Television chat show. To say I was impressed would be putting it mildly, but one song does not a music career make, nor does it mean that you can make it as a recording artist. Lets be honest here, music industry history is littered with failed celebrities and actors, who though or were told they could cut it as musicians. I could name some of these disasters, but I won’t, but other than this album, the only other quality musician who also acts (that I can think of at the moment) is Minnie Driver, who’s albums Everything I’ve Got In My Heart and Sea Stories released in 2004 and 2007 are very worthy of your attention as well: both albums in my opinion are very good indeed.
Interestingly it was also on the same chat show that I first learn’t of Minnie Driver the singer songwriter, rather than actor, she also performed a song from her album on that occasion too. As Robert Downey Jr’s album was released in 2004, and Minnie Driver’s as well, perhaps 2004 is the year that the tendency for rubbish releases from the famous (other than for music)changes, we live in hope.
contains 9 new songs, and a reworking of Smile from the 1993 EP of the same name. Strangely this release is on Sony Classical. This is not a classical release in the normal context of the word used to describe a music genre, but would instead, sit better as an example of Jazz, though in someways even that genre does not quite fit all the material either.
My initial excitement, at Robert Downey Jr’s chat show performance has been rewarded and enhanced by the material on this album. The great surprise here, is Robert’s voice, looking at the handsome cool looks of Mr Downey Jr, you will I think be surprised at the husky sensuality of his singing vocal…the two don’t quite gel in my opinion. However this singing style suits the material on this album to a T and we are rewarded with the emotional depth and angst of someone who has a great deal of life experience; and it shows in this music, if not in his face.
The opening track of the album, Men Like Me
is a fairly good example of the kind of material on this album. Robert bares his soul on many tracks and the instrumentation is fairly sparse, with his voice, piano, drums, strings and double bass being used in the main. Sound quality is anything but sparse, its open and detailed, with excellent dynamics (no compression)and an almost live quality. This no doubt is down to the excellent production work of Jonathan Elias (a friend of Robert’s who’s studio was used in the main) and Mark Hudson, who produces The Futurist, 5.30, Broken and Smile. It is also testament to these gentlemen that overall the album has one coherent style of presentation….and thus no glaring differences in sound quality.
Track two, Broken, is, or so it would seem semi if not wholly auto-biographical. Its a story of someone falling in love with a person who identifys themselves as only The Broken Hearted. Its about entering a relationship as someone who views themselves as damaged, and the results of that lack of self worth. I ask the question is this about Robert Downey Jr ? Only he knows the answer to that question. As with track one, this is a beautifully constructed piece of music with fabulous vocals.
Tracks three, and four, highlight strongly the great musical maturity, that in my opinion is displayed on this album. It is a very difficult thing, to create music that gets the relationship between voice and instrumentation right. Both work in harmony, neither dominating the other, and this quality is present on all the tracks of this album, this is a recall achievement for a seasoned composer, with many recordings under their belt, never mind their first full length release. The interplay between vocals and instruments is also very well arranged and this translates into a haunted delicacy.
Track six, 5.30, reminds me a little of Bruce Hornsby’s more recent material. This track features a gentle interplay between, piano, organ, guitar and percussion; which subltely drives what sounds like a light hearted song; but it isn’t. Once again this song is about failed love.
The biggest surprise on this album is track seven, a new take on two classic songs and one of them a fairly unlikely choice for a Robert Downey Jr album you would have thought. It is Your Move by Yes. I have to say this version has rapidly become a favorite song on the album. It’s rare to find any cover version than equals or surpasses the original, and in this Robert has succeeded in my opinion. The addition of John Anderson as backing singer is also a brave mood and despite the obvious differences in Robert’s voice to John’s this marriage works very well; with both voices complementing each other.
The arrangement on Your Move/Give Peace A Chance medley is a bare bones one, that manages to keep the vibe of the original, but take it to a whole new level of sophistication. Simple and mostly acoustic makes this a standout track on this album.
Track nine, Hannah is just simply fantastic…words fail me to try and describe it..so I won’t try; just go hear it for yourself.
The final track Smile I approached with caution as I just don’t like this song. However Robert has won me over to it. Smile has a sparse (there’s that word again) Jazz vibe, and features a traditional Jazz combo of Drums, Double Bass and Piano, but it is his singing which is just amazing. The raw emotion and expression that he brings to this classic (which featured on Chaplin), gives it new life, depth and a meaning that had just passed me by before. Another stand out on this track is the amazing Double Bass solo towards the end of the song. Beauty, but a sad beauty is a theme through out The Futurist, and this song exemplifies this perhaps more than any other.
I think it fair to say that this album is a little short on lighter moments bar say Your Move
, but it has plenty of shade and depth. Indeed this album is populated with the shadows and demons of life..perhaps even Robert Downey Jr’s life, but the way we hear it laid out on The Futurist, makes it not only a bearable journey to take, but one with great delicacy and haunting magic, and one we want to share with Robert.
This album is a major achievement in my opinion, and it is sad it did not do better at the time of its release in 2004. I strongly urge you to get a copy, and both listen and enjoy the incredible artistic achievement The Futurist is. I hope that Robert is allowed, indeed encouraged to make a new album and it is my ernest hope we don’t have to wait too long to hear it.
Robert Downey Jr. The Futurist. CD, Sony Classical/Sony Legacy 2004 (SK 92654)
Source of Music reviewed….. Reviewer owned item
Sound Quality 8.7 out of 10
Music 10 out of 10
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