Although he’s a hell of a bass player and entrepreneur, Bill Wyman is hardly the most prolific songwriter around, for a man who has spent his life as a musician. Sure, his Rhythm Kings outfit has kept busy over the years, but Wyman solo albums have been thin on the ground: Back To Basics is his first proper solo record since 1992.
The press release makes much of the album’s influences: Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, it says here. The stripped-back nature of the instrumentation justifies those names to an extent, but Wyman’s songwriting is more akin to that of Ringo Starr, who unashamedly bashes out tunes in which ‘talking’ is rhymed with ‘walking’ at every opportunity. See It’s A Lovely Day, whose opening gambit of ‘it’s a lovely day, hey hey’ won’t do much to deflect naysayers’ claims that Wyman, like Starr, is no more than a wealthy ex-member of a massive band who occasionally releases lowest common denominator albums for a laugh.
Fortunately, most of the songs – nine new, three re-recorded – here are less self-indulgent. Wyman clearly has a knack for hook-laden pop, as readers of a certain age will recall from his 1981 hit Je Suis Un Rock Star, and the opening cut What & How & If & When & Why would make a perfect summer single, if such things still existed. Strangely, Wyman whispers or speaks rather than actually singing on most of the songs, but it seems to work for some arcane reason. Perhaps the clever choruses of Stuff (Can’t Get Enough) and Running Back To You render proper vocals unnecessary.
At its best, this album delivers laid-back, bluesy songs over which Bill tells his tales of everyday life. She’s Wonderful is a slow, bass-driven ballad presumably devoted to his wife Suzanne, while Seventeen is a whispery elegy to times past, and November a thoughtful reflection on life’s autumnal stages. Often, the writing takes the listener by surprise, with a slightly odd chord sequence underpinning I’ll Pull You Through. Meanwhile, I Got Time, the last and best song on Back To Basics, is truly bleak, with blues harmonica and references to ‘liquor’. Here at last is where the Tom Waits reference rings true.
It isn’t always this good. I Lost My Ring and Just A Friend Of Mine are a touch winsome, while Love, Love, Love is as cheesy as its title would suggest. But perhaps albums like this one aren’t supposed to stand up to the barbed criticism for which we hacks are so deservedly unpopular. After all, in Back To Basics, Wyman by definition is obviously not trying to reinvent the wheel. There’s also an admirable vulnerability throughout, perhaps due to his uncertainty about releasing albums at his age: in the interviews he’s given recently, he’s candidly admitted that perhaps, at 78, he’s just too old for all this.
That’s not the case: there are well-crafted songs here. As long as Wyman lays off the witty rhyming couplets, he’s not done yet.