McDonald no longer has the range.
Once the voice that launched a thousand rock yachts, Michael McDonald no longer has the range that made him the go-to timbre for everyone from Christopher Cross to Steely Dan. Performing for Independence Day just a few years ago, during his patriotic signature “Sweet Freedom” he reached out for “You keep the spirit alive,” its high notes sadly eluding him. Yet earlier this year McDonald reunited with sometime ‘70s collaborator Kenny Loggins on Thundercat’s “Show You the Way,” and with Wide Open, his first solo album in nine years, he reaches for a more low-key spirit with mixed results.
The album’s 15 originals spark what McDonald wants to be a wide-open conversation, one that at some points seems to be a conversation with himself. The somber opener “Hail Mary” is both spiritual and desperate. “Does the sound of my voice still carry/ Any kind of message still important to you/ Or should I just let it die?” A mournful horn chart echoes Bobby Caldwell’s blue-eyed soul hit “What You Won’t Do for Love,” and this self-reflexive meditation on the end of his own career is surprisingly solid, a mellow groove that goes down easy as coffee shop background and mildly rewards closer listening.
While much of the album evokes the slick white soul on which he built his career, the soaring “Half Truth” is a surprising mix of swampy blues and bombastic indie rock. It’s a relationship song that seems to strive for greater relevance: “It’s just one of those times/ When a half-truth/ Becomes a whole lie.” Is he talking about fake news or is he searching for greater career relevance? It could be a little of both.
“Ain’t No Good” continues the spiritual crisis that opens the album: “I ain’t looking for the key to heaven/ Just open the gates to hell enough to let me out.” Unfortunately, the Voice of the ‘70s seems to be in purgatory. You wouldn’t expect there to be a “What a Fool Believes” or even a “Yah Mo Be There” here, but McDonald’s gift for the unexpected hook never makes its “Hail Mary” connection.
These are all fairly long pop songs. Gone are the days of the concise three-minute single; only one of these Wide Open tracks is under five minutes, and the dirge-like blues “Just Strong Enough” runs almost eight minutes. That’s a long time to carry a brooding tune, and if the melody doesn’t force him to hit notes that he’s no longer strong enough to hit, he doesn’t sound like his heart’s in it. A brass section evokes a New Orleans funeral, and as the track finally ends, it’s as if McDonald has buried himself.
Worse, the album ends on a clumsy appropriation of an old Funkadelic lyric. “Free A Man” is a would-be gay rights anthem that riffs on George Clinton’s “Free your mind/ And your ass will follow.” McDonald’s answer? “Free a man/ And love will follow.” Well-meaning but corny, Wide Open is a conversation with his own past. It’s no disgrace to his previous heights, but it doesn’t establish any new ones.