BY XAVIER JOHNSON
Reggae excels in the margins. On the surface, many tracks can sound the same with very similar rhythms and timbres. To even a moderately trained ear suddenly the genre opens up to its true nature, a beautiful and diverse style that’s filled with life and meaning and has stood the test of time. One of the genre’s greatest artists is Jimmy Cliff, who laid fairly dormant in the 2010’s, but returns at the end of 2022 to add another strong record to his already legendary discography.
Cliff is a reggae icon hailing from St. James Parish, Jamaica. Since the sixties, the 78-year-old musician has established himself as one of the genre’s true standard-bearers. It’s a pleasant surprise for fans to see Cliff pop up with a new record. Refugees is his first original record since Rebirth in 2012. Despite the 10-year gap between records, he sounds excellent and is still crafting unique ideas and masterfully entwining different genres into one cohesive project. This new album is a departure from what he delivered a decade ago. Rebirth was a loud album that leaned on electric guitar and dense horn sections. It offered some solid, joyful music and brought reggae filtered through more of a ska and rock lens.
Refugees is a shift in tone that is much more focused on a traditional reggae sound without sacrificing the trademark sonic diversity Cliff appears to exhibit on most records. The album is an exploration of different corners of the Jamaican musical world, from standard reggae tunes to dancehall bops and North American rock. This quality is one of the strongest aspects of Refugees. It contains many different sounds which keeps the listener constantly engaged. The opener “Money Love,” is a strong introduction to what is in store on the 13-track album. It’s an inviting rhythm marked by Cliff’s standout vocals, the notable guitar skank, and some wonderful harmonies. “Money Love” also sets the tone through the deeply political messaging that is a throughline on Refugees.
At first glance, the thematic elements are self-evident from the song titles to the lyrics. Naturally, reggae will be an inherently political art form. The genre acts as a mechanism to deliver important social messages and drive change. Cliff is a solid conduit of revolutionary thought. While the album is radical, nothing has a one-note presentation. Cliff approaches radical politics with thoroughness and empathy that only comes from someone who’s seen as much as him. A track like “My Love Song,” with its danceable rhythm and friendly tone, still has a deeper subtext in which joy and love are powerful and necessary forces to get through hard times.
The second track “Here I Am” is a well-done effort with its sauntering beat and solid chorus. Throughout the album, Cliff does a great job including earworm hooks that tie each song together. From “Here I Am” and its dense pre-chorus that leads into harmonized affirmations to “Security,” an upbeat, jubilant anthem whose simple message is that everyone needs a personal refuge, or as better explained by Cliff, some security.
Politics run deeper than the sonic and thematic parts of Refugees. Cliff collaborated with the UN Refugee Agency to better inform people on how they can support global refugees. It’s a clear message that provides the listener with a specific way to act upon the record’s many call-to-action moments. A highlight comes early with the dynamic “Refugees” featuring Wyclef Jean, Haitian rapper and founding member of the Fugees. The pair team up for a thought-provoking track that touches on the myriad refugees through history and how they aren’t that dissimilar from one another. Like many of the other songs, it places empathy at the forefront of Cliff’s radical ideas. It’s a striking track that opens with a solid verse from Jean before Cliff takes over for the remainder. Sonically “Refugees” is the first point in the album that makes the ears perk up with its smooth rhythm and explosive chorus marked by Cliff shouting “refugees” to the mountaintop.
Jean and Cliff team up again on the closer with a dance version of “Refugees;” a major shift in sound, but a welcome addition that further emphasizes the diverse music represented on the album. It features the same excellent vocals sung by Cliff, but this time backed by a low-key dancehall beat that would be a welcome addition to any club. “Punus” is another track that lays down an undeniably slick vibe that’s simply joyful to listen to.
There are two more collaborations found on the record that translate into quality songs. Jamaican singer and all-around musician Dwight Richards hops on “We Want Justice,” a triumphant jam that shines with its energetic sing-a-long vocals and neat horn section. It’s an exciting song that uses its inviting sound to deliver a meaningful call to action to fight against unjust systems. It’s followed by the powerful “Racism,” featuring Cliff’s daughter Lilty. The heartwarming tune packs its message with beautiful melodies and a rock-solid rhythm section. The pair’s vocals mesh well, providing fantastic harmonies on the chorus.
Jimmy Cliff is a pioneer and that is evident throughout Refugees. It’s a record that’s performed with confidence and takes a forward political stance that’s handled with grace without being diluted by the need to appease those in power. When reggae is at its best, it blends a socially conscious tone with fantastic musicianship that trades showy virtuosity for showcasing a mastery of subtlety and crafting a mood. Cliff’s return is worth checking out. Don’t go into Refugees expecting it to be like his last album. However, it’s just as good in its own way. It’s packed with tracks that will lift the spirits and leave the listener with some food for thought.