Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
It begins with the sound of the wind. It’s a swirling sound, synthesized yet silken. Behind it comes a bass line—but not the kind that thumps or thunders. It lopes and flows, a lust-conducted pulse. In oozes a voice. “Soft and warm / A quiet storm,” sings Smokey Robinson, crooning like Cupid, the act of love itself given human form.
“Quiet Storm”—the opening track of Robinson’s 1975 album A Quiet Storm—is the start of one of the strongest, most on-the-nose metaphors ever put to music. That strength, like all good strengths, seems deceptively weak. Robinson was already a legend by 1975, and the label he helped build, Motown, had become iconic. Riding high on the commercial triumph of rejuvenated veterans like Marvin Gaye and young guns such as The Jackson 5, Motown had been uprooted by founder Berry Gordy and relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles. Motown’s empire had come to encompass not only popular music, but Hollywood and, shortly, Broadway. Robinson had no small part in that. As the leader of Motown’s first signed act—The Matadors, quickly changed to The Miracles—he became one of the label’s main songwriters and producers, and eventually the company’s vice president. No less, Robinson was one of Motown’s most consistent hit-makers; from 1960’s No. 2 hit single “Shop Around” to 1970’s chart-topper “The Tears Of A Clown,” Robinson never let his nurturing of his fellow Motown acts cut into his own eminence as the catalog’s crown prince.
The Miracles broke up in 1972, leaving Robinson without a band. That didn’t seem to matter. Diana Ross had recently left The Supremes, and had hit the ground running. Two of The Temptations’ star singers, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, had quit the group to start promising solo careers. If anyone was poised to make a turbulence-free transition from group leader to stand-alone star, it was the total, singing-songwriting-producing package that was Smokey Robinson. Instead, stunningly, he announced his retirement from the stage. His first two solo albums, 1973’s Smokey and 1974’s Pure Smokey, aren’t bad, but they sound hesitantly made, and they failed to make an impact.
Soul music was making a transition of its own in the mid-’70s. Disco had yet to hit its Saturday Night Fever zenith of cultural saturation, but it was on the rise. Already popular was soft soul—a smooth, sophisticated, sometimes jazz-accented form of R&B that did away with the gutsiness and oomph of the Stax Records ’60s sound as well as James Brown’s hard-funk backbone. Isaac Hayes, a former Stax songwriter and session man, went platinum by going orchestral. In Philadelphia, Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and others were penning and producing lush, simmering ballads for everyone from The Spinners to The O’Jays. Donny Hathaway—a total package in the same sense as Robinson—had already released four sumptuous albums in the early ’70s. One of Robinson’s contemporaries at Motown, Marvin Gaye, had morphed beautifully from his clean-cut persona of the ’60s into the socially conscious, superhumanly sexual artist behind 1971’s What’s Going On and 1973’s Let’s Get It On.
In this climate, Robinson should have ruled. Like a glass of champagne amid bottles of soda pop, he’d always stood out from the rest of the Motown stable in the ’60s. Even when The Miracles had made fun, silly dance songs like “Going To A Go-Go” and “Mickey’s Monkey,” Robinson felt as if he were straining toward something more rarified. With “Tears Of A Clown” and earlier satiny hits like 1965’s “Ooh Baby Baby” and “The Tracks Of My Tears,” he helped lay the foundation for ’70s soft soul—only he’d neglected to move into the high-rise that had risen above it.
Then came A Quiet Storm. The wind that swirls through the opening song is just the tip of the tempest. Where “Quiet Storm” sways with a jazzy elasticity, “The Agony And The Ecstasy” sounds relatively conventional, a more spacious update of the forlorn balladry Robinson mastered in the ’60s. Guitarist Marv Tarplin—the one member of The Miracles who stuck with Robinson after the group’s breakup—lends frictionless licks to the tale of extramarital heartache, which is accented by female backing vocals and Robinson’s own vowel-stretching delivery. At its heart, the song is full of tension. The affair he sings about, forbidden and burdened with guilt, establishes an economy of romance that only the kinky or cynical subscribe to: “You got to pay some agony for the ecstasy.”
That sensual quid pro quo carried over into “Baby That’s Backatcha.” The closest A Quiet Storm comes to Marvin Gaye territory, the song taps into the suggestive parlance of Let’s Get It On while bookending the emotionally heavier vibe of “The Agony And The Ecstasy.” To its credit, “Baby That’s Backatcha” is concerned with one thing and one thing only: finding an orgasmic equilibrium in the bedroom. “Baby, it’s tit for tat / I’m giving you this for that,” Robinson sings, his voice sultry and shaded with implication. A king of wordplay who deeply influenced a multitude of songwriters’ love for extended metaphors and double entendre—up to and including Elvis Costello’s—Robinson knows what he’s doing in every syllable of that line. The song also nudges the edge of disco—albeit disco’s slower, steamier, more heavy-lidded side.
A Quiet Storm lets the thunder subside for “Wedding Song”—a marshmallow of a love jam written for the wedding of Jermaine Jackson, whose group, The Jackson 5, had faithfully covered The Miracles on its first three albums—and “Happy (Love Theme From Lady Sings The Blues)” a tune that’s far more melancholy than its name would imply. These two tracks comprise the album’s gooey candy center, but “Happy” leaves a salty aftertaste of tears. Bobbing on an atmospheric pulse, the song’s ostensible schmaltz is curdled by Robinson’s plaintive plea to a departing lover. The titular happiness is a thing of the past; Robinson, in his passive-aggressive love-man persona, is trying to leverage his lady’s return by pouring on the waterworks. By that point, Robinson’s sob-centric sensitivity was well established, to the point of become a stereotype. That tone took on a fresher quality when stacked next to the preponderance of aggressive, hyper-masculine soul seducers in the ’70s, from Gaye and Hayes to Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White. Robinson didn’t hunt. He just laid out the honey.
The sedative sweetness of “Wedding Song” and “Happy” doesn’t linger too long. It immediately gives way to “Love Letters” and “Coincidentally,” the album’s final shot of adrenaline to the heart. Of the two tracks, “Love Letters” is the standout, and it’s the nearest thing A Quiet Storm comes to a dissonant moment; with its squelching, sci-fi bass line and jerking changes, it feels like a dry run for the future-funk of the ’80s (not that Robinson was destined to go that route, either). His voice snaps, synthesizers burp, and a note of nervous energy creeps into Robinson’s promise, “I sign myself to you, baby”—another example of his love for drawing out metaphors, and one that’s eerily reminiscent of a record-company executive talking about a contract. Then again, Robinson was a record-company executive. The fun sinks to a simmer on the album’s closer, “Coincidentally.” Funky yet laid-back, with a chunky Clavinet in the background better suited to a Stevie Wonder song, the track lopes along in a lubricated groove as Robinson’s voice coils around it like vapor.
It would be an exaggeration to call A Quiet Storm even remotely edgy. But from the title on down, it’s clear Robinson relishes in contradictions. The album is practically a study in them: passion versus poise, shyness versus lust, stark funk versus lavish sophistication. But it all comes back to the storm itself. The sound of the wind that opens “Quiet Storm” weaves its way through the entire album, an ambient hum that fills the dead space between songs and symbolizes Robinson’s feathery whisper and elemental endurance—not to mention the entire subgenre of soul, dubbed “quiet storm,” that sprang from it. Then again, that hum might not be the wind at all. It might be the sound of blood rushing through the body, warm and awake again for the first time in too long.