Jack Bruce’s forthcoming Silver Rails isn’t a long-hoped-for return to his greatness with Cream, a fiery fusion excursion in the manner of his more recent work with Spectrum Road, or something else entirely. It’s actually a little of all of that, as the restless bass-playing singer-songwriter traverses a dizzying array of song styles — some blessedly familiar and some intriguingly new — while bravely facing his third act head on.
The thread holding this tapestry of textures, cadences and ambition together on Silver Rails (due March 24, 2014 via Cherry Red Records) is Bruce’s voice — both as a singer and as a storyteller. He sounds weathered, but never cowed — beaten up at times, but never beaten down. “I used to be somebody,” he admits in on the contemplative, piano-driven “Reach for the Night,” and as the long-awaited Silver Rails unfolds, you get a clear picture of why.
This is one of those tour-de-force recordings that record labels attempt to construct for people of Bruce’s vintage, the kind of versatile, endlessly engaging project that works both as valedictory for his legacy fans and as a window for the next generation. Except, unlike your typically pasted together all-star amalgam, Jack Bruce is front and center throughout. Even when famous names like Robin Trower, John Medeski, Cindy Blackman Santana and Phil Manzanera sit in, Bruce remains a centering force.
“Fields of Forever” has a frisky early-Who-esque groove, while “Don’t Look Now” allows Bruce to explore every element of his vocal range — all in service of a devastatingly honest look at life’s twists and turns. The gorgeous “Industrial Child” goes deeper still, getting quieter still, finding a home right next to Bruce’s heart. That’s balanced by a nasty menace of the aptly titled “Drone,” a song that takes his Spectrum Road collaboration with Medeski to its outside apex.
“Hidden Cities,” with its dark portent; the lip-smackingly gutteral blues of “Rusty Lady”; and “Keep It Down,” which boasts an easy-going, slightly psychedelic lope probably most closely recall his time with Cream, but without the eruptive power-trio machinations. Instead, Bruce sings with a weathered knowingness, offering a series of perfectly placed bass lines.
As with any recording this free-form and experimental, Silver Rails doesn’t always hit its mark — as on the opening calypso-themed “Reach for the Night,” which feels a little jokey when placed alongside the muscular “No Surrender.” There, Bruce admonishes us not to “be afraid of the mistakes you’d made.” That’s what the gutsy Bruce has always been about and, I’m happy to report, he still is here.