Taking a step away from the band that made him a star, unstrapping his acoustic guitar and letting loose on a dynamic collection of r&b songs, Darius Rucker has come into his own as an artist and musician, leading a talented assortment of writers and producers on a journey of Soul Rediscovery, presenting Back To Then, his first solo album--and probably not his last.
Why now, you might ask? Why make a solo record when he can rest on the laurels of 20 million CDs and sold-out arenas and a stronghold on rock and pop radio with Hootie and the Blowfish? Now was simply the time, says Rucker of his decision to branch out on the r&b tip. On a practical level, after three wonderful records, Hootie and the Blowfish were taking a break from the scene. "It was a good time for those guys to sit home and chill," Rucker says with his infectious grin. "Guys have had kids, they have families and all, they have lots to do. But I had this record in my head that I wanted to get out."
Why r&b, you might ask? Why make a record of twelve sterling soul-laced tracks, careening from uptempo funk cuts to gospel-inflected meditations, from lover-man balladry to playa-playa party jams? Because this was the music that Darius Rucker grew up listening to in his South Carolina home as a child. This was the kind of music his mother put on when she told him to take off his Kiss albums back in the day. This music is the direct descendant of the tight Al Green love songs and the raw Otis Redding melodicism that bounced from the speakers, off the walls, and ricocheted into the heart of a music lover who's been singing since he was 3 years old. Says Rucker, full of remembrance of music past, "When I was a kid, I thought I'd be an r&b singer. That was the music I heard when I thought about pursuing a career in music." One of the highlights of the album, a stunningly funky cover of Al Green's "Glad You’re Mine", came about because of some cosmic connection to those old days.
That song--a favorite growing up--appears on many of the mix-tapes Darius has made for friends over the years and it was one of those songs he told himself he'd be recording one day. That song turned up on a tape of cover song ideas as Rucker was planning the album. Of course it had to be on the album. It fit like an old worn out glove. Listening to Back To Then, you can't help but be impressed by the sheer audacious level of the songwriting. As much an ode to real, solid songwriting as it is to Darius Rucker's growth as a singer over the last few years, Back To Then revels in the lush details of pinpoint production which could only happen when you’re recording a batch of top-notch songs. That was the point. "It was all about the songs," Rucker explains. "I mean, I wanted hits, twelve hits, and even if I'd had to get twelve covers to make that happen, twelve great songs from other people, that's what I would have done."
Perhaps because he put that kind of energy out there in the universe, Darius Rucker didn't even have to go that route, refreshing as it might have been in these days of beats-per-minute lyric-writing that passes for songs. Rucker hooked up with a crew of inspiring and inspired writers and musicians who were more than eager to follow his vision of building an album that would be known for its quality of songs and much as the beauty of its sound. From The Characters to Philly's Touch of Jazz, from r&b stars like Musiq Soulchild to Lil Mo, Rucker found true collaborators to put into the mix.
That was important. Says Rucker, "I'm not about dictating what happens in the studio, not with Hootie, and not with this project. What, I'm not gonna record 'Wild One' because I'm not gonna get fifty percent of the publishing? I just wanted great songs to sing. And I didn't wanna just sit down and write these songs on my acoustic guitar, then pass them off to a producer and say 'here make this an r&b song'. I wanted to open my mind to other ways of working on music and come up with new things. One of the things I appreciate about this record is that Hootie and the Blowfish couldn’t have made it. And it's not one of those solo albums by a lead singer of a band that sounds just like something his band could have made. This stands apart from the Hootie and the Blowfish."
Oh boy, does it.
Check out the lush beauty of "Exodus", the pretty blush of the background vocals and acoustic guitar backing the martial drum and loving forcefulness of Darius's vocal. Listen to the aching beat of "Sometimes I Wonder", a duet with Jill Scott that blows the roof off the typical superstar pairing--it's like these two were born to intertwine their clear, yearning vocals. Experience the strikingly bold sexuality of "Wild One", Darius' declaration of his Lover Man vibe, funkdified and flavaful, opening the album with a burst of rhythmic and musical intensity rarely displayed in modern r&b. Worship with the gospel glory of "Somewhere", blending an almost-a cappella simplicity with multi-layered praise-giving that leaves chills up and down the spin.
Darius Rucker has made a statement. And he's saying, "Live, Love, Learn". Which is what he did with this project, producing a work of art that stands out in the midst of mundane music and will stand the test of time precisely because he made a record that feels as good as it sounds. Which is how you define a hit.
"The word 'hit' is such a taboo in the rock and roll world," says Darius Rucker. "But that's what I wanted to make, an album of hit songs. In rock and roll, you're supposed to write 'great songs' and if they're hits, that's cool. But I like hit records. In r&b there was a time when the hit records were the great records. That's what I wanted."
As Chaka Khan said, a great song has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it's a complete thought. Darius Rucker has twelve complete thoughts here. And together, he's created one of the most complete thoughts in popular music in the new millennium--a singer's album where you love what the singer's singing; a musician's album that sounds like the musicians are actually playing warmly together; a solo album by a brother who understands the marvelous qualities that come from togetherness.