Boz Scaggs - Middle Man
Boz Scaggs' steamy new blockbuster, Middle Man, more than recaptures the robust lushness of Silk Degrees, the album that firmly established Scaggs as pop-rock's sharpest fancy dancer. Its recipe is the same: two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, generously embellished with strings, horns and backup vocals. Though David Paich, the brilliant keyboardist who was Scaggs' chief collaborator on Silk Degrees, appears on Middle man, Scaggs' main partner on the new project is David Foster, the gifted keyboard wizard who produced Daryl Hall and John Oates' Along the Red Ledge and cowrote Earth, Wind and Fire's "After the Love Has Gone." As on Silk Degrees, the arrangements are carefully blocked-out set pieces that boast the precision and texture of big-band charts. In front of these gorgeous backdrops, Scaggs struts his vocal stuff, a white soul man in tie and tails.
Middle man lifts the aura of detachment that's usually surrounded Scaggs. He sings more aggressively than ever, often taking big chances. In the title track, a driving boogie, Scaggs pushes his voice to the manic edge, achieving a thrilling immediacy. Elsewhere, the singer uses his jagged, quavering falsetto not to express tender erotic thrall in the traditional soul manner, but to project the high-voltage carnality of urban life. Middle man could well be Boz Scaggs' response to Donna Summer's Bad Girls, since its milieu is similar: a high-rent, high-rise City of Night where grand passions and cheap thrills are one and the same. Indeed, the cover photo shows a slicked-down Scaggs exhaling cigarette smoke, his head propped on the fish netted thigh of an anonymous showgirl. The artist's air of blithe depravity implies an unabashedly glamorous view of the voluptuary life.
Though the words are hard to understand without a lyric sheet, the song sequencing suggests a hot affair with a hooker. "Jojo," the first number, introduces us to a middle man who could arrange just such an adventure: a gun-toting, mink-clad pimp who gazes down from "dizzy heights" on Broadway's "spinning lights" like a neon Bacchus. The tune's arrangement is a smoother, steamier update of the throbbing pop-disco of Silk Degrees' "Lowdown," the melody a chromatic refinement of Philadelphia International formulas. Middle man's musical style shifts back and forth between this slick, choral pop-soul and the brand of streamlined hard rock that's been a Scaggs signature beginning with "Dinah Flo." As on Silk Degrees, most of the core members of Toto man the hardware. "Breakdown Dead Ahead," the LP's catchiest rocker, is so exhilarating that the romantic smashup it anticipates exudes a deadly allure. This is no warning about life in the fast lane, but an incitement to slam down on the accelerator. "Simone," a slippery-sweet proposition that echoes "My Cherie Amour" and the best of Burt Bacharach, segues into a beautiful ballad, "You Can Have Me Anytime," that's reminiscent of Silk Degrees' "We're All Alone" but buffed with symphonic gloss straight out of Rachmaninoff. So ends side one, on which Scaggs pursues Eros into a dreamy fadeout.
Side two reels us back to the precipice. "Middle man" lurches between paranoia and braggadocio as its protagonist, in the first verse, offers to pimp for his girlfriend. In the second verse, he asks to be her john. "Do like You Do in New York." a tense soul strut, imagines the entire city as a flesh market where the watchwords for survival are "Don't look down" and "Go another round." In "Angel You," the tension becomes even more explicitly perverse. Here, Scaggs and backup singer Rosemary Butler play lovers who arrange their dates as though they were commercial assignations. In the record's final cut, "You Got Some Imagination," Middle man's whole fantasy world shatters in jealous recriminations. "You got a mind like a tattletale magazine," Boz Scaggs rails. "You must be crazy if you thought I'd fall for you." Sure enough, Scaggs' joy ride ends in a break down.
From a talented blues acolyte, Scaggs has developed into a pungent quasi-soul stylist comparable to Michael McDonald and Daryl Hall. All the roles he's tried on over the yearsSouthern blues rocker, Bay Area gentleman, sophisticated soul man have finally come together. Boz Scaggs' raw timbre, syllabic slurs and insinuating phraseology make him pop music's hippest city slicker, a sulky roué who combines Al Green's leonine grace with Van Morrison's emotional volatility.
If the real estate on Middle man is too expensive for most of us, the music keens with a zest for the high life that cuts across racial, sexual and economic lines. This is great party music that conjures up the achingly erotic tug of all big cities, a honky-tonk yearning that's as old as any Saturday-night fever.