These are soulless times. Foolish old men wage war, pad their pockets and watch in amused contempt and pitilessness as the world falls to pieces. Thuggish young men coo contrived lyrics lifted from fictional representations of street life in HBO’s The Wire or The Sopranos spiced up with an occasional sprinkle of Sex in the City minus the female autonomy. Morose consumers immobilized by the heavy diet of leaden bullshit languish in political and aesthetic purgatory. That is, until someone or something comes along and serves up a rejuvenating platter of organic living food. In U.S. politics, that something may be MoveOn.org in its relentless attempt to “Lick Bush.” In Rhythm & Blues, that someone might be Eric Roberson, whose solid independent release, The Vault 1.5, recalls the golden age of soul music in the iced-out age of thug lovin’.
An in-demand songwriter for artists such as Musiq, Vivian Green, Dwele, 112 and Carl Thomas, Roberson proves to convey his own material best. He channels the ghosts of soul singers past on this release, a fusion of selections from his two previous, out-of-print albums, 2001’s The Esoteric Moment and 2003’s The Vault: 1.0. Flashes of Stevie’s provocative social commentary frame “Li’l Money,” but Roberson’s greatest spiritual debt is owed to the supreme sensualist Marvin Gaye. All comparisons aside, Roberson’s sound is all his own.
It’s almost as if the lifelong musician divined his sound. He speaks explicitly to God on “Def Ears,” asking for clarity in life and love. The extent to which his life lens has improved remains unseen, but The Vault: 1.5 positions Roberson astonishingly clear on women.
“Change for Me,” topically reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” is guaranteed to have you jumping and funking all night long. Roberson attempts an intrepid incursion into the female mind on the souled-out and housed-up wings of indie producer and artist Osunlade. He successfully captures the fracturing insecurity that collapses many a young women’s sense of self when in the throes of a romantic relationship, singing “In your eyes I see questions/ Has his faith drifted lately?/ Wondering if in your hand you see there is my heart offered to you?/ Hope you don’t worry that you will not be able to hold on.”
Roberson’s womanly insights reappear in “Right Back To You” a heavenly musical experience that replicates the nervous and satisfying heart skips and sighs of a developing love. He offers a variegated delivery, belting and then reducing his voice to a lilting whisper, extending notes then adopting staccatos, adeptly etching love’s shifting stages onto dusty grooves.
Before you cynics and man’s men write the young singer/songwriter off, Roberson offers a complex and honest perspective on his acute female-friendly romantic sensibilities on the star of his album’s twelve-chaptered story. “Couldn’t Hear Me” recounts a tale he claims as his own in the opening adlibs. Apparently the Eric Roberson of wax differs from the Eric Roberson of flesh and blood, and quite often lovers are unable or unwilling to differentiate between the two. Roberson cleverly weaves a tale of pleasing unreality and paradigm-shifting reality for the artist and his muse with no happy ending in sight.
The Vault: 1.5 whisks listeners into an otherworldly experience of love and disillusionment. Beats drops, guitar riffs join the fracas, keys chime in and Roberson’s candy-coated alto transcends them all, dripping with rarely heard sincerity. He manages plaintiveness without succumbing to the begging of his less-gifted contemporaries. He avoids explicit sexual content without sounding prudish. He sings of love in a remarkably realistic manner, bringing himself to the table with each and every song — the definition of a soul singer.