After a 55-year career that helped lay the foundations of soul music, it’s an odd quirk that Solomon Burke’s last album comes not backed by a group of old hands or genre regulars, but by an obscure Dutch rock band. Yet following his death last year at the age of 70, Hold on Tight seems like a reasonable terminus for the singer’s oeuvre, representing both his worldwide appeal and an expansion of the positives and negatives that always defined his work.
As tired as Burke sounds here, his once-powerful voice weakened by weight gain and health problems, his positive qualities of palpable geniality and warmth remain. But Hold on Tight is also just as prone to his usual pitfalls, namely a tendency toward upbeat preachiness, self-satisfaction, and a weakness for gimmicky choices. The application of backing band De Dijk, who had previously recorded only in Dutch, feels like a surrender to all these qualities, with the group operating as reasonably capable sidemen who seem utterly deferential to Burke’s wishes. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much challenging or exciting about this album, which ends up sounding like a lethargic victory lap.
There’s also the issue of the pall cast by Burke’s death, which makes the fall from his vocal peak, where the singer’s low end thundered and his high notes vaulted over his backup singers, all the more evident. Aging is about the acceptance of limitations, which in the case of musicians means finding the best methods to fill in weak points. Instead of bolstering Burke, De Dijk ends up only highlighting his frailty, padding his songs with the broad hooks and affectations you might expect from a cruise-ship R&B group—or maybe a Dutch one.
The opening title track, with its message of perseverance and hope, is the kind of song that gains significance after a tragic event like this. It’s a sturdy, well-conceived song, on which the band fudges the landing, cheesing up Burke’s improvisatory fade-out with a big guitar solo that threatens to drown out his voice. “Rose Saved from the Street” finds the singer verging on Tom Waits territory, all grizzled experience, wheezing accordion, and half-swallowed delivery, but the rest of the song is too comfortable and ordinary to rise beyond pabulum. The way in which the atmospherically applied accordion, effective as a minimal touch, dances off into a jaunty seems to sum up everything that’s wrong with the album.
Burke doesn’t do much to explore his new rumbly, teddy bear-style delivery, but the deep tones of his voice still make it an interesting instrument. At times it suggests the ambling style of an aged bluesman, a quality that’s unfortunately leavened by endless positivism and pandering mentions of self-consciously modern signifiers like text messages. This characterizes music that’s simultaneously timeless, entrenched in age-old methods of light-and-easy R&B, while tilting precariously toward an unbefitting modernity. Pitched decidedly near the middle of the road, Burke’s final album is a generally pleasing endeavor that might have benefited from a little more effort.