Dr. John's verbal trip is the hippest a pop lyricist's can be. Dig the formula on this new album, "Quitters don't never win/ And winners don't never quit." Reduced to logic (a sinful move in poetic analysis but an indifferent one for pop lyrics), the words simply cancel themselves out. Singing, in other words, is music, period, not the proper vehicle for verbal statement of any kind.
Dr. John has become sufficiently serious about the musical aspect of the biz to produce high-quality rhythm and blues (so bland a description accords with the album's latent message). Even when he aimed just to blow minds his music was creditable, if a trifle boring. More and more, though, the musician in Mack has triumphed. Yet the costs of the victory seem emblazoned forever in his appearance. The Dr.'s plumed pomposity, like the scar of a vaccine, is a sign (paradoxically) of immunity from the hype it appears to suggest.
So the crazy voice, immaculate in its phrasing if uncertain in tone, broods over a slow a sonorous funk band and a fine back-up chorus. Mack's arranger-producer, Allen Toussaint, has loosened up considerably since he did the horns for the Band's Rock of Ages, where his parts were too complex for the groove. Now his saxophones bend cool, wet, and simple; with a growling backbite, though, that threatens to rage. It's the 'threatens,' in fact, that's everything, a mark of the soul technique of restraint and inference that has mercifully found its way into music fit for a rock audience. The moods vary from blues ballads like Toussaint's "Go Tell the People" and Mack's "Me-You-Loneliness" (the fondness for formula continues) to salty shakers like "(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" and "R U 4 Real" (the language games persist, too).
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, May 14, 1974