If anyone who cracked the charts in the 1980s got a bum rap and was left hanging, it was John Waite. The British singer and songwriter fronted the intensely melodic Babys, who wrote well-crafted, hooky, straight-up rock tunes and power ballads. Then, with "Missing You," the monster single from his breakthrough record No Brakes, Waite was saddled as one of the dukes of power pop balladry. Nobody ever let him live it down. Waite fronted the supergroup Bad English with bandmates Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain from Journey, scored big once again with the overdone "When I See You Smile," and then went right back to being a solo artist. He has been accused of writing and singing directly for the charts and has been looked at impassively since the early '90s. It's too bad that the ballad and the power ballad have been looked at with such cynical disdain. Everyone looks at Sting as a "sophisticated" pop songwriter simply because he forgot how to rock and has to resort to gimmick-like lute music to get himself across. Waite has been stubborn; he's no changeling. His songs have always stuck closely to big-time rock & roll as a chosen method of expression whether it's an up-tempo shaker or a tear-jerking ballad. It's true that he's not always been wise in his choice of producers, but that said, he's always made exactly the record he wanted to make.
Downtown: Journey of a Heart was issued in England and Canada last year, it hits the racks in 2007 on Rounder in the U.S. The title is the story. Waite has consistently written about the human heart seeking rest. The heart is his most consistent image in the same way that redemption has been Bruce Springsteen's. The album contains two new cuts, a cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," and a handful-and-a-half of tunes from his catalog. This isn't the first time he's tried to get his songs across on multiple albums, and there's good reason for that: nobody's really heard them apart from hardcore fans -- and God bless them for keeping him in the game, albeit on the margins. Be honest. Who ever heard the fine, sometimes brilliant Figure in a Landscape from 2001? Or the fine Hard Way from 2004? This time out, he's very smart. He's got a tight band that includes ex-Springsteen guitarist Shane Fontayne and keyboard boss Reese Wynans and a slew of others; Waite's name is listed first in the producer's chair. The music here is edgy, sharp and expertly executed. For the first time in a long, long while Waite might get a chance here in the States.
Yes, he re-does "Missing You," but with a twist: Alison Krauss duets with him on it, and she proves she can sing any damned thing she pleases -- especially rock & roll. If there's justice, he might crack it again with this track, but it's far from the best thing here. His "Hard Way" is a narrative rocker with punch, grit and steam. His beautiful re-do of "New York City Girl" is one of the finest broken love ballads to fall out of an album in this decade. The Dylan cover is well meant and reveals Waite's agility as a singer: he proves yet again that he has the ability to sing the rock-blues, but it wasn't necessary here. "St. Patrick's Day," one of the new songs, is a fine story ballad and proves the man can still write mean and lean narratives worthy of greatness. Waite spins a yarn worthy of the rock generations that preceded him -- Van Morrison, Springsteen, Willy DeVille, Mellencamp, Richard Thompson -- yeah, it's a diverse group, but Waite's a Brit who gets this place better than most Americans. He tells a story that follows his protagonist through shifting scenes and crowds to zero in on a pair of lovers in an impossible world who somehow succeed. It's deep, moving and full of extra touches that make it irresistible. "Head First" is wilder than its original version, and it's one of those crazy hedonistic straight-up rockers that's been missing from the scene for at least a decade. Then there's "Downtown," from his 1995 album Temple Bar, a piano-painted ballad that looks deep into the Big Apple, its vast emptiness in the middle of everything, where energy and movement are everything but connection itself. Here is the heart seeking heat anywhere it can find it, from memory, the shifting landscape of downtown, and the rootlessness that only freedom can bring. The set closes with a stripped down version of Bad English's big one. "When I See You Smile" is full of strummed 12-strings, and Wynans' gorgeous B-3, with a neat slide part adding just enough tension to make the tune hungry and real. The bottom line in all this is that Waite has not only still got it, but his songs endure when played in a modern context. There isn't a tired moment here, all of it is vital, bursting with red blood, passion and taste. Waite's back (though he was never away as a songwriter) in color in a black-and-white era of generic, dour rock anthems and empty pop songs. On Downtown: Journey of a Heart, he's on his craft; let's take notice.