It begins with the pleasing musical simplicity of a solo piano. I hold my breath. Then his sensual, sumptuous voice washes over me -- "This is the night I've been dreaming of forever, the mirror takes a look at my face" -- and I smile. At first, I search for signposts in his words that will help me to connect the songs with the stark headline details of his life we all know. But then I let go and sink into the complexities that lie at the heart of his music. When it ends, and there is only the tap of rain on my window, I feel as if I have visited with Downey for a while in his own beautifully human universe.
For some of us who have been Downey fans since Less Than Zero and before, the wait for his first CD has been a long one. "The Futurist" is worth the wait. I'm old fashioned in that I think albums should be a whole experience: an interesting cover, liner notes, designed to be listened to from start to finish without interruption. After listening to "Futurist" for the last few hours, I can say that in my view it is a proper album, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's direct and warm, emotionally and musically honest. The production doesn't disappoint. Each listen brings something new to my attention. But, it's a Robert Downey Jr. album, so along with the beauty and the genius, there are intriguing, subtle kinks and oddities.
Musically, Downey's clearly adept at genre skipping, at laying down his own richly textured path of musical expression. It is pop, but pop inspired with delicate jazz and blues flavours, and a sprinkle of classy soulful moments. Downey's vocal performances are a mix of fragility and strength, and they captivate. His voice moves comfortably between smooth as suede on the ballads, to a rock edginess, to a delicious smoky blues tone.
On the production, I have to say that in my opinion the gentler, more organic approach taken by Jonathan Elias suits Downey's music better than Mark Hudson's somewhat busy production style. But I confess to a bias in that one of my most treasured CDs is Elias's Prayer Cycle.
Downey's lyrics are strong and evocative. Sometimes he slips into the delightful wordplay that his fans have come to anticipate from his media interviews. The theme of transition prevails. He uses his songs to examine those shadowy times on the edge of love and redemption.
For now my favourite song is "Kimberley Glide," or then again "Little Clownz" and "Hannah" are really good, and there's "A Man Like Me" and "Details" to consider. And listening to "Smile" at the end of the album felt rather like opening a small velvet-wrapped present.
The creative arts always involve risk but Downey took a bold step when he committed to push at the edges of his musical competence, and create his first CD. I applaud his courage and spirit. "The Futurist" reveals to us all that as both an actor and a musician, Robert Downey Jr. is gifted, daring and imaginative.