Jimmy Cliff Dave Marsh - Essay

Dave Marsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jimmy Cliff's initial impact last year, based upon his starring role in the film, The Harder They Come and his work on its soundtrack LP, made it seem that he might come to be considered the best, or at least the most accessible to Americans, of the reggae singers. But the enormous expectations created by the movie have made his subsequent work—last year's Unlimited and this album—seem worse than it really is. Because Cliff is such a fine vocalist, even his worst efforts are listenable, but his initial promise has been marred by the uneven quality of much of the material he sings.

It was easy to see why Unlimited failed. Recorded for Warner Bros., it became trapped in the pitfall of that company's production mill, which has a pronounced tendency to reduce everything to a variant of Southern California pop. But hidden beneath the slickness were some good songs…. If the album lacked a song as powerful as "You Can Get It if You Really Want" or as deeply felt as "Many Rivers to Cross," it gained impact through repeated exposure: The more you listened, the more you wanted to.

Struggling Man strays from reggae only once … but it still isn't the break-through recording Cliff needs to become a major artist. Part of the problem is generic—reggae is the most exciting form of American pop in years, but it has a disturbing tendency to become just a musical formula—and part of it is that the songs here aren't great ones. "Let's Seize the Time," the worst, sounds like it was written by a Jesus freak trying to co-opt New Left rhetoric.

Interestingly, the songs Cliff wrote alone are the best. "Going Back West" is spiritual in the way that "Many Rivers to Cross" was, though its imagery is much more secular; "Struggling Man" has something of the life that made "You Can Get It" so great…. Cliff's instinct for melody and the alternately joyous and languid reggae beat still make this a most listenable album. When he sings like he means it … and when the material is worthwhile, this album proves that the promise is still there.

Dave Marsh, "Records: 'Struggling Man'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 168, August 29, 1974, p. 58.