At nearly 70 years old, Smokey Robinson is still one of the world’s greatest writers of popular song. Take any one of this set’s 12, beautifully-crafted vignettes that deal with just about every aspect of love – lost, found, enjoyed, unrequited and so on – telling stories in a way that will mean something to just about anybody. And the music’s as meticulous too, shifting tempos to change the aural scenery, always maintaining exactly the right mood – so many of those on today’s RnB production lines could listen and learn from the man who once bossed Motown, soul music’s original production line.
But given Smokey’s age, it’s unsurprising that the tracks that work best are the two where he has help: You’re the One for Me and You’re Just My Life, featuring Joss Stone and India.Arie respectively. Not that he can’t cut it any more, as half a dozen songs here are classic solo Smokey Robinson. Although his voice matured and mellowed post-Miracles, as he croons through easy-rocking masterpieces like That Place and Whatcha Gonna Do, the years fall away. That said, they’re written well within his slightly reduced range, and then wrap things up in arrangements of enough depth to cut him slack. Noticeably, the couple of tunes that perhaps should have been given to somebody else – Don’t Know Why and the title track – are those with the most modern, minimalist backing as they leave him most exposed. That’s the one drawback with writing of this calibre: it leaves little room for faltering.
The real joy of Time Flies… though is the hidden track, a supremely sultry and grown up reading of the Jackson Five’s first hit, I Want You Back. Arranged as kind of lounge jazz (in a good way!) with plenty of space and featuring a trumpet and a piano, it’s a not so much a cover version as a reinvention, giving the lyric a whole new sense of purpose. It’s great that after 50 years in the business Smokey can deliver exactly what you’d expect, but still have the capacity to surprise.