May 5, 2016
Last year Gregory Porter told me that “Holding On,” his sleek, skittering collaboration with the British dance duo Disclosure, started out as a bare-bones piano ballad. Given how much I’d thought of Porter’s fine 2013 album, “Liquid Spirit,” this was something I had to hear.
Now I can: A handsome, slow-and-low rendition of “Holding On” — not merely unplugged, but with different chords that alter the vibe of the song — opens Porter’s new record, “Take Me to the Alley,” due Friday.
The tune’s placement on the album speaks to the importance of “Holding On” in Porter’s career, the way it put this Southern California native in front of unfamiliar listeners after years of hard work in jazz clubs and on Broadway. (He got a similar boost from the Grammy Award he won for “Liquid Spirit.”)
But if the song sets you up to expect some kind of concerted attempt at a pop crossover — his John Legend moment, let’s say — then think again. On “Take Me to the Alley,” Porter, 44, actually turns inward, focusing on the musical values and the subject matter closest to him.
There are songs addressed to his young son, including “Don’t Lose Your Steam” (in which he sings, “I’m counting on you to get me to the other side”) and “Day Dream,” about a boy using broomsticks as magic cars. There’s the deeply felt title track, which seems to have been inspired by Porter’s mother, a minister who moved him and his seven siblings as kids to a tough neighborhood in Bakersfield.
“Take me to the afflicted ones,” he sings over a gentle but sturdy piano groove, “Take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way.”
And there are vividly imagined love songs, like some of those on “Liquid Spirit,” with lyrics that put you right inside Porter’s head. “You wear a black leather belt that holds the waist I used to hold,” he sings to begin “In Fashion,” a line that feels almost startlingly personal when Porter sings it in his big, brawny voice.
Throughout the album, which the singer produced with Kamau Kenyatta, Porter matches these cozy sentiments with modest, small-scale arrangements — mostly keys, bass and drums — that sound shaped more by the gigs he’s played over the last three years than by any desire to experiment in the studio.
But Porter’s resting state is a compelling one. He could stay here for a while.