This is the first satisfying album Jimmy Cliff has made since the soundtrack to The Harder They Come in 1972, and as such it comes as a relief. It’s never been fun to see a good man fall so fast, or so hard, as Cliff did after his startling performance in Perry Henzell’s film. There he was, with ten years as a ska, rock steady and reggae singer behind him, playing the outlaw so many reggae songs had called for: his reflexes changing to the beat, Cliff was convincing in every moment on the screen—and just as tough, edgy and exciting on record. The title cut, “You Can Get It if You Really Want,” “Sitting in Limbo” and the Percy Sledge-like “Many Rivers to Cross” suggested the emergence of an authentic heir to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding (the Cooke and Redding of “A Change Is Gonna Come”), and suggested as well that reggae would stake its claim as the crucial music of the early Seventies.
Neither event took place. The Wailers and the Maytals, not to mention Burning Spear and a number of other artists, kept the promises Cliff had made (in truth, they’d been keeping them all along), but reggae died a commercial death in the U.S.A. Cliff, apparently confused by the stardom he’d wanted so long, took a new contract with Warner Bros. and proceeded to make music so dull you couldn’t even blame it on an attempt to compromise, to “reach a broader audience” to sell out. It wasn’t long before some of his LPs ceased to be released in America, and in 1975, in the middle of an FM special on Jamaican music, I heard a DJ respond to a listener’s complaint that no Cliff tunes were being played with the statement that “of course, Jimmy Cliff was never a real reggae singer!”
Enough time has passed to make such ignorance almost salutary. As with the eight years between Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” and “Drift Away,” the audience has become forgetful enough, or new enough, to take Cliff for whatever he appears to be—if he’s good enough to listen to, problems of definition, or of making sense of him in the pop cosmology, will be clarified in turn.Give Thankx opens with a number totally unlike anything I’ve heard from Cliff before and unlike anything else on the album: “Bongo Man,” a slow, moaning, doom-struck, patently lovely chant that makes about as many concessions to “pop” as the current government of Cambodia. With any other Jamaican performer, the Bongo Man—the Deliverer, the Salvationist—would be Jah; here the harbinger of a new day is much more ambiguous, and (given the way a thousand reggae tunes have turned Haile Selassie, or his ghost, into an excuse for not thinking up something new to write about) more believable, more scary.
From this shattering beginning, Cliff slips into love songs, protest songs, tales of wandering and exile, and closes with the single clinker of Give Thankx, “Universal Love (Beyond the Boundaries).” Save for this last, the melodies are clear and entrancing, the arrangements intelligent and vital, the singing mature and direct. Themes are not novel—the lyrics to “Wanted Man,” “Stand Up and Fight Back” or “Lonely Streets” are strictly implicit in the song titles—but what is new is the expressiveness in Cliff’s voice, and in those of the women singing backup. Jimmy Cliff is low, blasted, persistent; the women sail quietly behind him like memories he’s trying desperately to keep. The affinities with early and mid-Sixties soul music are still there, as is the punchy, magically solid reggae sound of “Viet Nam” and The Harder They Come—a sound one doesn’t hear anymore, that Bob Marley has long since abandoned and that has not dated at all.
The cool, deep shine of Give Thankx also marks the return of Bob Johnston, who coproduced with Cliff and whose career has been pretty well stymied since Bob Dylan dropped him after Self Portrait. The records on which his name has appeared in the last few years have been enough to make one believe Johnston was telling the truth when he’d say, as he invariably did, that he “just let the tapes roll.” Give Thankx is far too rich, its shadings and colors too strong, to have been caught with an easy reach.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1978