Sunday, March 28, 2010

Robert Downey, Jr. - The Futurist

Yes, you read correctly: the actor Robert Downey, Jr. released an album. Not a gimmicky novelty album, either. Released in 2004, Downey wrote (or co-wrote) eight of the ten songs on his debut. His covers are also very well chosen: "Your Move" (the first half of Yes' "I've Seen All Good People") features Yes singer Jon Anderson singing backup harmonies (and slipping in strains of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" as a surprising coda), while album closer "Smile" was written by Charlie Chaplin whom Downey played in his biopic. More than anything, on this set Downey proves that this album is the opposite of a typical actor-releasing-an-album gimmick. He is a talented singer/songwriter who easily carries a full album.

The first two tracks (which are sadly the only two tracks available on Lala), "Man Like Me" and "Broken," are an excellent sample of what follows. Opening with pensive yet authoritative piano, "Man Like Me" reveals a lovely melody as strings calmly appear to carry the song along. Prehaps given his filmography, you were expecting rock music? This is a piano-dominated album and one closer to Joni Mitchell than Billy Joel. Actually, given his vocal style, The Futurist most recalls Peter Gabriel's solo albums of late. With a soft, chalky voice that he doesn't push much (but doesn't break when he does), Downey comes across as comfortable not just playing piano but also singing his songs. And, as a songwriter, Downey's sense of melody isn't the only surprise; lines like, "the mirror takes a look at my face," show a deft touch at wordplay.

With "Broken," the album takes on its second sonic shade, as lightly-plucked guitar leads into a poppier-sounding track with synthesized chords and organic percussion. With its bittersweet refrain, "you fell in love with a broken heart," Downey sings the part of an open-hearted romantic who's made bad decisions but can't believe his good fortune to find the redemption of an accepting love. How autobiographical it is is besides the point; it's the best song on the album because of both its lyrics and its delicate melody. The Futurist's producer, Mark Hudson, co-wrote this song and another stand-out track, the title song, and deserves a lot of the credit for the album's success. Not only does Downey sound great but the whole album does, with a crystal-clear production giving Downey gorgeous soundscapes to sing over.

That title track, which is another poppier production but without the emotional tug of "Broken," does reveal one of the weaknesses of the album, however. The lyrics are occasionally a little obtuse. When he sings about, "our furious, curious, fantasist code" Downey falls prey to the temptation of letting clever words supplant meaning in importance. There is also little variation in tone between the songs. You can count on each song to be a mid-tempo piano-pop ballad with more than a little gravitas. There are little individualities in each song ("5:30", for example, has a jazzier undercurrent and a more active instrumental bed than most of the modest and plaintive music found elsewhere) but besides the standouts the rest do tend to fade into each other in retrospect.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of an Academy Award-nominated actor releasing an album that could be considered a vanity project, this is an exceptional release. The Futurist comfortably resists being labeled a novelty because of its plentiful strengths. Downey's songs and consistently able singing coupled with Hudson's production yield a surprisingly pleasing ten-song output. By the time Downey finishes tackling Chaplin's oft-covered, "Smile," it's actually revealing that it feels the most out-of-place song on the album. The jazz standard feels different than the rest of the album, which illuminates the impressive feat that Downey and Hudson have created an album that has a strong aesthetic feel about it against which "Smile" can seem out-of-place.


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