Over the course of his four-decade career, Robin Trower has often found himself on the outs with critics. Trower was virtually invisible during his tenure with the keyboard-heavy Procol Harum (at least until his breakout role on his last album with the band, 1972’s aptly titled Broken Barricades) and he was typically dismissed as a talented but ultimately pale copyist of Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary guitar style once he embarked on his solo career with 1973’s Twice Removed from Yesterday. For his part, Trower made no secret of his deep respect and admiration for Hendrix and it clearly shone through on his early albums, particularly his smash 1974 sophomore release, Bridge of Sighs.
The success of Bridge of Sighs illuminated a very valid point about Robin Trower — fans didn’t particularly care that he was emulating Hendrix. They proved it by vaulting his albums onto the charts in gold- and platinum-tinted numbers (he was assisted in his efforts by the flawless honey bourbon vocals of bassist James Dewar). But even Trower’s fans had their limits; after the dour and underrated Long Misty Days, he covered old ground a little too often and became the victim of the law of diminishing returns.
Eventually, Trower arrived at the same conclusion as Hendrix, namely that the pursuit of a purer form of the Blues was in order. After Dewar’s departure in the early ’80s (he suffered some alleged medical malfeasance in the late ’80s and was essentially disabled until a stroke claimed his life in 2002), Trower worked with a variety of vocalists, including former Cream bassist Jack Bruce, and even took to the mic himself for a few albums. Trower found a capable substitute for Dewar’s powerfully gritty, soulful vocals in former Gamma/Ronnie Montrose lead singer Davey Pattison, who has remained with Trower (save for occasional forays with Montrose, Michael Schenker and on his own, among other projects) since 1987’s Passion.
For Trower’s latest album, The Playful Heart, the guitarist offers his most subdued and quietly powerful work to date, featuring the most emotive songwriting and playing of his long career. On the guitar side of the equation, Trower blends his longstanding love of Hendrix (“Don’t Look Back,” “And We Shall Call It Love”) with his Blues exploration (“Dressed in Gold”), dialing back the fireworks to craft a guitar sound that is supple and strong, never overly flashy or overwhelming and yet unmistakably his own.
“Find Me” is a slinky, smoldering example of Trower at the absolute pinnacle of his powers, peeling off riffs and solos of heartbreaking force; when the song begins to fade out at the six-minute mark, it seems altogether too soon. And then there are the songs that feel like unearthed Bridge of Sighs sessions: the insistent atmospheric pulse of “The Turning”; the swaggering “Song for Those Who Fell”; the gentle ache of “Maybe I Can Be a Friend.” And on the songwriting front, Trower has rarely if ever been so nakedly evocative and emotional in his lyrical and musical presentation, from the autobiographical title track to the quietly determined “Prince of Shattered Dreams” to the jazzy after hours lilt of “Camille.” With Pattison’s capable vocals and the bedrock foundation of his longstanding rhythm section of bassist Glenn Letsch and drummer Pete Thompson, Trower has invested The Playful Heart with the majestic gravity of his early work and the subtle power that can only come from years of toil and tears, both personal and professional.