We have seen soft rock’s future, and its name is Charlie Puth. The singer-songwriter’s Voicenotes album, finally released today (May 11) over a year after lead single “Attention” first enraptured audiences, is a masterful update of ’70s and ’80s top 40 songcraft with ’10s-friendly production, making for a set of pop bangers that should be as accessible to Lionel Richie fans as Selena Gomez fans.
The album takes general cues from much of the overall AM gold and early MTV classics of the period, but the roots of many of its songs can be specifically traced back to certain enduring smashes. Here are nine soft rock classics whose DNA is clearly audible throughout Voicenotes‘ 13 tracks.
Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” (1976)
An obvious antecedent, considering that one of the album’s most striking tracks — the Boyz II Men-guest-starring a capella ballad “If You Leave Me Now” — shares its title with the Chicago Billboard Hot 100-topper, as well echoing its chorus refrain with the lyric “If you give it up and just walk right out/ You will take the biggest part of me.” Not the only song to bear the Chicago influence, though: Charlie’s trademark, octave-scaling “ooh-oooh-oooh” exhortation, heard across several of the album’s tracks, is distinctly Cetera-ian in its pinched falsetto.
Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (1982)
Maybe a slight stretch for soft rock, but Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller album — from which “P.Y.T.” was one of seven top ten hit singles on the Hot 100 — bore the fingerprints of soft-prog greats Toto, whose Steve Lukather and brothers Steve and Jeff Porcaro all played on several of the album’s tracks. Puth’s “Done for Me,” a duet with Kehlani, is so distinctly “P.Y.T.” in its intro and synth-funk strut that you might reflexively start singing “Where did you come from, lady…” as soon as the beat drops.
Steely Dan, “Hey Nineteen” (1980)
The sleazy sway of Steely Dan bears on nearly all subsequent pop/rock by East Coast-bred singer-songwriters who find themselves caught up in the glitz and runaround party scene of Los Angeles, and the New Jersey native Puth is certainly no exception. The romantic age discrepancy prominently bemoaned in Steely Dan’s final major hit, “Hey Nineteen,” pops up in two consecutive tracks on Voicenotes — albeit once with Puth as the young’n being condescended to (“BOY,” which whines “You won’t wake up beside me/ ‘Coz I was born in the ’90s”) and once with him as the relationship’s veteran (“Slow It Down,” on which he warns himself, “She’s only 23/ I’m not the guy that she’s supposed to love”).
Ace, “How Long” (1975)
Second Voicenotes single “How Long” takes its title and primary “How long has this been going on?” refrain from one of the great one-offs of ’70s top 40, Ace’s similarly titled Hot 100 No. 3 hit. Of course, in the Ace jam, singer Paul Carrack is voicing his suspicions, whereas in Charlie’s version, he’s the one fielding questions about his own misbehavior, even admitting “it only happened once” — a clever twist which keeps the set’s second advance single from coming off like “Attention” redux.
MIchael McDonald, “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (1982)
And as long as we’re talking “Attention” — the nocturnal, cruise-tempo jam that gave Michael McDonald his first solo smash outside of the Doobie Brothers has been resurrected many times in pop history, most notably by Warren G. and Nate Dogg for their ’94 G-funk smash “Regulate.” It’s not sampled or interpolated so directly by Voicenotes‘ smash advance single, but the vibe is an unmistakable lift: It’s got the same gently foreboding synths — the sonic equivalent of Porsche headlights striking the foggy night — as well as the same steady bass rumble, and even the same general lyrical theme, of an ex who just won’t let the singer’s broken heart mend.
Hall & Oates, “Private Eyes” (1982)
Take your pick of Hall & Oates jams, really, since Puth’s “Slow It Down” was actually co-written with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo — a match made in era-spanning, blue-eyed soul heaven. Early-’80s chart-topper “Private Eyes” is the song that best seems to strike the Voicenotes tone of choice, with its mid-tempo saunter and generally accusatory lyrics (“You play with words, you play with love… you can twist it around, baby, that ain’t enough”). Puth is no doubt a “Rich Girl” fan as well — you’re almost surprised when “LA Girls” manages to avoid making a reference to “the old man’s money.”
Robbie Dupree, “Steal Away” (1980)
Perhaps paying tribute to the heyday of his co-writers, Puth nicks the synth riff to Robbie Dupree’s early ’80s smash “Steal Away” for the intro to “Slow It Down.” Or is it actually the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes”? Either way, it’s instantly evocative of the Jimmy Carter era with its clipped phrasing and melancholy funk, yacht rock for a landlocked generation.
James Taylor, “Fire & Rain” (1970)
You’re not gonna find many pop albums whose only three guests are each separated by entire generations: Kehlani, Boyz II Men, and soft-rock OG James Taylor, whose mellow singer-songwriter stylings overtake Puth’s own traditional sonic trappings on the duo’s what-the-world-needs-now duet “Change.” As with Hall & Oates, take your pick of JT callbacks here, though the similarly dulcet “Fire & Rain” seems a likely formative number for Puth, with its sentimental meta-wallowing: “I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song/ I just can’t remember who to send it to.”
The Eagles, “Take It to the Limit” (1975)
The weepy strings, angelic backing vocals, and waltzing near-gospel of Voicenotes closer “Through It All” should be recognizable to any student of L.A. soft-rock history as a clear descendent of this show-stopping Eagles ballad — when the music briefly cuts out for Charlie to moan “I’ve been through it all,” you can’t help but expect him to hit you with a “You know I’ve always been a dreamer…” Just disappointing that Puth passes on attempting those signature Randy Meisner high notes at the end; next album, Charlie.