I'd expect a little more from Smokey Robinson than a cliche like "Time Flies When You're Having Fun" for an album title but listeners would be lucky if, in this instance, that much was true. With moments of subdued exhilaration all too scarce, time inches forward on the album like a fly stuck in molasses.
However, this is Smokey Robinson and there will always be a certain quality in his work to save situations like this from being a complete misfire. Like Lionel Richie, a younger peer of Robinson's when they both recorded at Motown, he's had to find where his particular style of writing love songs fits as music styles (and audiences) continue to evolve (and devolve). For Smokey Robinson, this means inviting a pair of younger artists onto the project who are no strangers to duets with established talent -- Joss Stone and India.Arie -- as well as including a boldface player with cross-generational appeal like Carlos Santana in the proceedings. (Dig a little deeper and you'll also find names like Ray Parker, Jr., Ricky Minor, and Paul Jackson, Jr. in the credits.)
Unlike teaming with young superstar producers and writers, which Richie continues to do with varying results, Robinson works mostly solo here. He trades in what he does best, and what birthed a whole radio format, "quiet storm." It is the most obvious antecedent to the soft, undulating grooves that dress these eleven tracks. That is both the album's strength and its limitation.
At its best, Time Flies When You're Having Fun gives Robinson a cozy backdrop to croon. His voice, one of the most distinct in American popular music, hardly sounds a day older than 1965 and certain passages, such as the bridge on "One Time," fondly recall some of his more memorable melodies. If there is a reason to explore Time Flies When You're Having Fun, it's simply to hear Robinson wrap his voice around a melody as only he can.
The mood-setting qualities of "Time Flies," all candlelight and bath bubbles, are a promising start and the cover of Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" that follows couldn't be more of a perfect match for Robinson's interpretative talents. Unfortunately, after such an excellent beginning, the album becomes a mixed bag. Approach with caution.
"Please Don't Take Your Love" and "Girlfriend" have nice enough grooves, the former features Santana, but are both wasted by lyrics in need of new rhymes. "Love Bath" promises more than it delivers. The temperature it generates is lukewarm and is exacerbated by a six-minute length. It's hard to fathom that the man who wrote these songs also wrote "The Tracks of My Tears" and "Ooh Baby Baby."
One of the best moments arrives too late to redeem the rest of the album. "You're Just My Life," a duet with India.Arie, is gorgeous in its simplicity. Even when the couplets fall flat -- "Paparazzi may not consider you to be someone who's worthy to be news-worthy" -- the melding of the two voices suggests that a full album of duets between the two may be something worth exploring in the near future. (The duet with Joss Stone, however, is passable but not remarkable.)
Times Flies When You're Having Fun will no doubt be welcomed warmly by the most ardent Smokey Robinson fans. The rest of us, however, will undoubtedly return to our own personal playlist of Smokey Robinson classics. If only this quiet storm roared a bit more.
By Christian John Wikane