Robert Palmer and I are relaxing and chatting over afternoon tea in a Boston hotel room. Palmer, a 30-year-old blond, blue-eyed rock and soul singer from Britain, is here on a promotional tour in support of his new album, Secrets - already the best selling record of the veteran singer's career.
Palmer hands me the packel of postcards that was sent out to the press along with the album. Turning one of the cards over, I read aloud: "Double Fun (his previous record) is an album so frighteningly banal it makes Johnny Mathis sound like Johnny Rotten by comparison. The lyrics are a stream of glittering cliches... the songs exist only to let him play out his mellow stud, hip-crooner image... the nine tracks here are aural sludge."
What kind of man sends out a press kit that quotes a review as vehemently negative as that?
Palmer tells me to go on, to read the back of another card. Well, this time around Palmer is called "the best of both worlds." The reviewer compares Double Fun to "outdoor sun, sea and sand calypsos" and sums it up as "one long silver sunset" from beginning to end.
Palmer has been chuckling along as I've been reading. "If I can do the same thing" he philosophizes, "and one guy can hate it so exactly and another guy can adore it so exactly - I mean I've got to figure the content of it is not what they're talking about. It must be something like an attitude. But because the attitudes can be that extreme, they don't make much sense."
Robert Palmer has a firm grasp on the direction he's heading in, and while he enjoys reading criticisms of his music, he is more amused by them than perturbed or elated. Palmer, a former member of Vinegar Joe, emerged as a solo artist in 1974 and since that time has pursued an eclectic and expansive rock career, employing frequent and shifting soul, blues, rhythm and blues and soul shadings. While his smooth style and flexible voice have remain consistent, Palmer has been an experimenter, restless but with traditional limitations. On each of his five albums, he has branched out and taken chances, some very successful and others less so.
Now, though, with Secrets (and the hit single Bad Case Of Loving You) riding high on the charts, Palmer has expanded his cult audience to embrace greater numbers of fans. With this album - more hard-rocking but still funky - will Palmer be tempted to narrow his horizons, to use the formula?
"I was exposed to all those things before I ever decided to go solo," he answers, "and I saw all the things not to do. Now it's my turn to modify and utilize the situation instead of being awed and victimized by it. So on the contrary, I'm interested in creating opportunities for myself. If I'm guaranteed an audience because of the business, then I can take even bigger risks."
Palmer is adept at creating fluid, sensuous, and yet rocking songs. He searches for the groove in a song and then brings it to the surface through the interplay of various subtle rhythmic and melodic variations. "I like syncopation, not academic playing," he says. "Simple in the individual terms, but intricate between the people. I like people being able to find their part and play with somebody - not players that are so groovy they boss each other out of a job."
On last year's tour, that happened. The drummer, who'd started off as a team player, got carried away with unnecessary and unwanted flourishes according to Palmer. "Two weeks on the road and he's met three women and they've driven him crazy and he starts playing jazz, ten minutes into the set," Palmer says. "I have to have somebody who can keep stable and keep his priority as to doing what's required. If it's a discipline that I impose on the player, it's all wrong. He's got to feel it. "
In concert, Palmer, as a lithe and handsome lead singer, is the natural focal point, but he likes to take the spotlight off himself and allow the band to stretch out and to create a dynamic between guitars, drums and keyboards. "It gives the songs more room to live," he says. "It places the emphasis on the songs rather than the style. You can really change the mood but have it as a compact, very defined sound, too."
Jim Sullivan (Bangor Daily News - 1979)