I Got My Name from Rock n Roll: Downey’s ‘Future’

Brad Lindert

“I’ll never set foot in that rat hole again / but I’ll drive to your place.” Robert Downey Jr. has lived a long time in the rat hole. But he seems to have turned his career around – or at least stopped it from spiraling down – long enough to put out his first album. And he had better stay clean so that he can put out more music like this.
“The Futurist” is a complicated album to describe. It comes with an outer sleeve that shows Downey’s face half-hidden behind some lyrics he is writing with a Sharpie. The picture is clean and crisp, very commercial. Then you take the sleeve off and you see what Downey intended to be the real album cover: a self-portrait. This picture finds Downey holding a cigarette with a slight frown on his face. The picture has been colored over with paints and pencils. Frankly, it looks like what Downey probably used to see when he would trip out on acid. These two covers show the two sides of Downey and his music.
“Man Like Me” is a great opener with piano and cello. It starts like an adult contemporary Top 40 song. But Downey’s unique style keeps it from being too commercial.
The second track, “Broken” opens with a slow acoustic guitar, which quickly falls away to a simple piano line over congas. The lyrics are lovely, with lines like “There’ll be someone new every night / With some other love yarn / To wrap my harms around.” At one moment the production on the vocals makes you feel like Downey is right beside you, the next he sounds muffled in the background. The song is so complex, every listen reveals more and more to me.
“Little Clownz” is another standout track. A song that starts as a slow piano ballad turns into an uplifting plea: “Hang On!” Knowing Downey’s history just helps every song bloom into something more powerful.
“Your Move” seems like something out of the Rusted Roots’ songbook. “Details” is a great piano bar jazz tune, with the great line “Tell me the truth / Do you? / Does anyone anymore?”
The album closes with “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin. Downey’s voice is filled with a smiling sadness and the upright bass plays the greatest bass solo of 2004. Most people remember Downey only for his portrayal of Chaplin in the biopic “Chaplin.” That may be the main reason that he recorded the song, but the lyrics seem to be have been written for Downey himself, after all he’s been through: “Smile, and maybe tomorrow / You’ll see the sun come shining through / For you … Smile, what’s the use of crying / You’ll find that life is still worthwhile / If you just smile.