Withers’ second studio LP sounds fresh and innovative to this day.
Daryl Easlea 2011
It is said that pop stars remain the age they were from when they first achieved success. Hence some, with their every whim being catered for, remain trapped in a permanent childhood. Not so Bill Withers. The man from Slab Fork, West Virginia didn’t turn professional until he was 32, after spending time working in milk delivery, for the Ford Motor Company and building Lockheed aircraft.
As a result, his songs came with an inbuilt, honeyed experience. Here was a man who had lived life and, as a result, brought a tremendous gravitas to his material. When he sang of hurt, the need for love and solidarity, you knew he was talking from first-hand experience.
On Still Bill, his second album, Withers holds forth on all aspects of love, on its wonders; on Kissing My Love, he talks of closing his eyes and seeing a pretty city with a million flowers. He sings of being a willing partner in a bad relationship on Use Me ("If it feels this good getting used / Keep on using me ‘til you use me up"). He also knows that younger men may eagerly sniffing around his territory – Who Is He (And What Is He to You)? perfectly captures personal paranoia.
The soul-gospel hymn Lean on Me was inspired by the friendships Withers forged while working at the aircraft factory. It is still as beautiful and inspiring as it ever was. It seems ever more poignant as the world spins off its axis – personal politics and sincerity and simple friendship are the essence of life, not the empty words of those in power. It comes as little surprise that Kevin Rowland made this record one of his key texts during one of the most intense phases of Dexys Midnight Runners.
All of this is set against one the tightest, funkiest ensemble playing you’ll ever hear. With simple instrumentation, Withers’ music is direct and honest. For example, drummer James Gadson locks Kissing My Love into a killer shuffle before Benorce Blackmon’s heavily wah wah’ed guitar weaves its understated magic. It also contains some of the most frantic whistling of any record.
Long retired, Bill Withers’ catalogue is one of the most discrete in soul. Few others sound like him. Still Bill is an exercise in perfect economy. Nothing here outstays its welcome and, as a result, it still sounds fresh and innovative.