Monday, July 4, 2011

Al Green Gets Next to You (1971)



Probably the hardest thing for us to imagine now, forty years after Al Green entered his most fertile period, is that his music was even then a throwback. A few years had passed since the heyday of the emotionally ripped Otis Redding and Sam Cooke records of yore. James Brown was by now thoroughly concerned with sweat generation, Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On was still ahead and his fixation was on social comment and musical accomplishment. Pure soul music was quaint in 1970, particularly soul music without a hint of machismo, occupied solely with cooing and whining and purring and quirk -- all of which have, like Stevie Wonder's nasal phrasing or Prince's otherworldly falsetto, entered a cultural lexicon that wouldn't have seemed conceivable at the time.

Not so today -- today we know Green as an innovator, the inventor of something. The lineage is surprisingly direct. Al Green Gets Next to You, his breakthrough effort as an album artist, makes astoundingly attractive, addictive hay out of something as simple as a seamless cobbling together of sensuous romance and filthy backwoods funk. It is velvet and smooth without the artificiality of Barry White or Isaac Hayes, never mind the factory brightness of Motown in the '60s. Green quickly asserts himself as belonging in the class with the masters -- his delivery is more nuanced than any of his peers except Gaye, and his adaptability, the craft of his voice, is a universal treasure, so undeniable as to arouse suspicion when confronted with one who doesn't fall in love with it on contact. The hit "Tired of Being Alone," written (like much of the next album, Let's Stay Together, but little of this one) by Green alone, is the perfect explication: tauntingly sad horns and one of the most superhuman, hurt, magical vocal performances to ever light up the radio. Willie Mitchell and the backing band keep up perfectly, and after a calmly sexy opening the record bursts open into harmony and urgency -- flawless and celebratory of flaws, it is an out-and-out masterpiece.

But you know that. What you may not know (indeed, I didn't, having loved Green for some time but never fully investigated his LPs) is that everything else here is worthy of it -- just as spacious, crisp, alluring. Usually Green renders brilliance from the same taut, wound-up self control he exhibits on the single (dig the rhythmic infection of "Driving Wheel"), but he can let go like crazed James Brown on "I'm a Ram" and come off just as naturally. Regardless of one's gender or sexual orientation, the slowed-down Parliament of "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" is the wettest and hardest of turn-ons; opener "I Can't Get Next to You" manages, impossibly enough, to amp up Otis in a breathing arrangement that beckons the audience forward. From there, the minimalism and unfettered beauty are consistent, on both laid-back rockers like "Right Now, Right Now" and material like "All Because," the kind of earthy soul that no one was bothering to make time for in this period. Green made sure they'd start to do so again. And true to form, he even writes a song about Jesus, "God Is Standing By," that's everything Gaye's "Wholly Holy" is not -- honest, well-written, sweet and lilitingly affecting. Even more impossibly, he wrings an excellent performance out of a song by the Doors, whose version of "Light My Fire" he of course effortlessly renders obsolete. Not once across the album does he make an undue indulgence or overstay his welcome; it's all gently throttling and sneakily powerful, any of the three or four genres he tackles done exactly the right way.

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