What’s fascinating about My Life, which marks Ronnie Milsap’s return to RCA after more than a decade away, is the way it almost succeeds as a concept record about aging and loss. If this sounds like a pretentious way to look at what is a commercial venture, it might be instructive to remember how the best pop music—think The Beatles, Gary Allan, Scritti Politti and many others—gets at serious issues without compromising its viability in the marketplace.
Like many pop records, Milsap’s latest works more as a continuance of received ideas than as a set of ideas that are fully realized. It’s immaculately sung, with real passion lurking underneath the surface of a vocal style that shakes the dirt off its roots in soul music. And as formal structures, the songs Milsap has chosen almost always provide pleasure.
Milsap is remarkably honest about his commercial ambitions. As he says, “When people ask me, ‘Would you do an album of traditional country?’ my answer is, ‘Will it sell?’ ” He’s similar to Ray Charles, whose career encompassed blues, R&B and pop songs of various degrees of banality, and Charlie Rich, whose countrypolitan hits never quite erased the memory of the troubled man who sang, in his 1970 song “Memphis and Arkansas Bridge,” about a domestic altercation that ended with him stewing in a Nashville jail.
My Life doesn’t quite match the best efforts of either Charles or Rich, but Milsap is so skillful a singer and such a savvy judge of material (“I went through 1,500 songs for this record, believe it or not,” he says) that you forgive any longueurs. Keith Stegall’s production lays a jaunty riff powered by harmonica and Jew’s harp underneath “You Don’t Know My Love,” and colors Bob DiPiero and Rivers Rutherford’s “Local Girls” with pan-drum sounds.
“Local Girls,” My Life’s first single, reveals Milsap as a relaxed, hip performer. When he declares, “Well, I was kicked back in a rented cabana / Easin’ my mind with some old Carlos Santana / Nibblin’ on a banana Moon Pie,” the only thing you wish for is a reference to, say, microwaving that Southern delicacy. If a bit too neat for its own good, “Local Girls” does play off the record’s theme of rejuvenation when Milsap sings, “Five years later here I am minnow nettin’ / With a couple of towheads as the big orange sun is settin’.”
The closing track, “Accept My Love,” is reminiscent of a classic early-’80s rocker by Rockpile, and listening to it, you get the idea that a good deal of Stegall and Milsap’s energy went into the asides—the moments that seem to be thrown away, but which reveal the personality of the artist. So, Milsap’s “My, my baby” in this song signifies, as does the way he stretches the word “heart” into two syllables in “If It’s Gonna Rain.”
The title song works off a series of ingenious suspended chords, while “A Day in the Life of America” employs a triple-time feel to express the frenetic nature of modern American life. “We wake up each morning and start every day / With coffee, espresso and grande lattes / Race into traffic and bitch while we wait,” Milsap sings. It’s an ambitious song that ultimately comes across as too wordy and too close to self-parody, even as it gets over as a classic overdriven pop tune. The closing section places Milsap’s staccato delivery of the lyrics over the more reflective chorus.
My Life mixes faceless pop with something darker and more disturbing, but never quite makes up its mind as to where it’s coming from. The modulations of “If It’s Gonna Rain” and “You Don’t Know My Love” skirt brilliance. Still, My Life could be more thematically unified, and Milsap and Stegall’s pop moves lack a certain context. “Every Fire” is as banal as pop or country music gets, while “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” with its soul-inflected guitar and canny phrasing, suggests more than it ultimately delivers.
That’s not to say that Milsap is not a great artist. But, like Charlie Rich or Ray Charles before him, he might benefit from going deeper, no matter what commercial considerations dictate.