25. Jimmy Cliff, Give Thankx
By the late nineteen-seventies, Jimmy Cliff was essentially persona non grata in his homeland. Born James Chambers in Jamaica, Cliff was one of the first artists to bring reggae music to a global audience, but the personal journey he took as he achieved fame alienated him from his countrymen, particularly when he converted to Islam in the early part of the decade. Rejecting Rastafarianism was seen by some as akin to rejected all of Jamaican culture, and he was often greeted with derision. To a degree, this may have freed Cliff up, as he followed up his breakthrough success with the film The Harder They Come and its accompanying soundtrack (originally released in 1972, though a little later in the United States, the success further lagging thanks to a slow build on the Billboard chart) with broader-based exploration of his musical muse rather than further exploiting the sound he’s helped establish a market for. He left Island Records for the Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise and started diversifying his creations.
Since music fans and critics aren’t always amenable to the different, Cliff also saw his stature drop. When he released Give Thankx, in 1978, it was only a few years after his breakthrough, but it was already seen as a comeback. Greil Marcus, writing in Rolling Stone, called it “the first satisfying album Jimmy Cliff has made since the soundtrack to The Harder They Come.” While the album still features some notable deviations from the reggae norm (the soulful “She Is a Woman,” the fragile opening of “Lonely Streets”), it is recognizably scored with Jamaican rhythms and driven by the thematic melding of politics and spirituality that tied it to the genre that made Cliff famous in the first place. It’s not clear that Cliff was trying to specifically reclaim his primacy among reggae artists (certainly ceded completely and forever to Bob Marley by this point), especially since he willingly acknowledged the disconnect from his birthplace in the song “Meeting in Afrika,” representative of the global exploration that helped irk his fellow Jamaicans. It did seem somewhat that he was settling into a mode that expressed the complicated contradictions he’d developed by this time, although presented with the easy reggae groove that has the super-power of making agitated ideas seem mellow and smooth.
Whatever the goal of Give Thankx, it didn’t achieve much commercial success, failing to chart in most territories and perpetuating the growing suspicion that Cliff was something of a one-hit wonder. Within a couple years, Cliff would go through another label shift, leaving Warner Bros. for MCA. He was in the very beginning of the long, slow process of transforming from a vital current artist to one who benefited from the perception of living legend status, elevated more by past accomplishments than whatever way being newly pressed onto vinyl. There’d be accolades and even minor hits to come. He even found himself back in the embrace of Jamaica, received the island nation’s Order of Merit, in 2003.