Saturday, October 15, 2011
Al Green: Definitive Greatest Hits (1967-2007)
You know how it is, boys. The lights are down low, you sink yourself down into the couch, you want to set the mood so you can get in a sensual supersexy mood while you work on your trigonometry homework. Or, you have speakers whose dynamics you want to check, something with soft tones and complexity and a boom-kick, right? Well, these are the two purposes for which this compilation -- an update of a legendary predecessor with the same cover -- is primarily useful. Oh, and sex, if you're into that sort of thing. One thing it's not great for, no matter how much you love Al Green (and I love him a lot), is hunkered-down detailed listening. In fact, this is the sort of greatest hits compilation (along with Prince's The Hits and the Beatles' Red and Blue albums) that causes such widespread disdain for the format.
Me, I love greatest hits compilations; I am pretty sure the three finest CDs ever pressed are Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight, Pet Shop Boys' Discography and the Beach Boys' Endless Summer, and such a list would rank at least six or seven compilations and even the Big Star twofer package #1 Record / Radio City above any straight studio album. But where I split with the compilation tradition is when it applies to artists whose albums are not only essential but very carefully paced -- and chopping them up and stacking their peaks one after another isn't as persuasive and ingratiating as one might expect.
To elaborate a bit, Greatest Hits was for years my go-to Al Green CD. A coworker had it at my old job and we blasted it from our little boom box in the deli at least three times a week for months. And this was in a place where Green was a common fixture on the overhead Muzak system anyway. Still couldn't get enough of the ballsy, pressing seduction and harsh brass hits of "Let's Stay Together," the swampy groove of "Take Me to the River," the voodoo orgasm of "Call Me." I left that job and no longer had the disc, then miraculously a teenaged library volunteer who (!) didn't know who Al Green was found a copy stuck in a young adult novel called The Book Thief. After I spent a few frustrating minutes trying to explain to the poor girl that Green was not just "some guy," I realized this was a Major Score and took it home and pretended I had a girlfriend to sit on the couch with over some red wine and trig and, yes, Al. Of course then track two comes up, "Tired of Being Alone," and it's so succinctly accurate I have to put my head on the pillow and drift off.
This is superlative music, not just in the context of soul which would be enough -- as a leading arbiter of pop itself, Green was peerless in his prime, his incredible voice and the muscle and velvet of his songs seemingly engineered to appeal across all cultural and color lines (a capability brilliantly illustrated by a scene in Steven Spielberg's Munich). Not to be confrontational, but if you don't like Al Green, you're probably not a very fun person. If you don't like these songs, you're just a nutter. At least fourteen of these twenty-one tracks are masterpieces; none of the others are anything less than delightful, and that includes the two cuts from the 2000s, especially 2004's "I Can't Stop," which fit in without any kind of strain.
So why isn't this an A+? Because in the last year I've begun to investigate Al Green's albums, of which much more will be written here in the future, and as much as I hesitate to make such a bold proclamation I think his career in the '70s can be compared to the Beatles', or to Prince's first decade -- the LPs are that consistent, powerful, well-crafted. Once you know them, as much as the flawless lineup of "I'm Still in Love with You" into "Look What You Done for Me" into "Here I Am" into "Love and Happiness" might make you momentarily religious, it makes a massive fucking difference hearing these songs the way Green initially put them together in albums, albums easily among the best of the '70s. I'm still processing the entirety of Green's career in that period, but I can already feel Greatest Hits fading in prominence for me. I discovered Prince through the aforementioned two-disc Hits, the Beatles eons ago through the Red and Blue LPs, but I honestly can't imagine listening to any of those now. The Beatles' non-LP singles are more logically collected elsewhere and condensing any of their albums seems brutal and pointless; the same goes for Prince's delirious (n.p.i.) run of artistic triumphs in the '80s -- clipping "When Doves Cry" and "Little Red Corvette," or "Eleanor Rigby" and "In My Life" seems beside the point. And I say that as someone generally very skeptical of how much "album context," sequencing, pacing matter as an artistic Statement.
But my point is simply -- when all of an artist's albums are so consistently pleasurable and well-balanced they could easily be best-ofs themselves, said best-of can quickly lose its purpose. With that said, I will add absolutely unequivocally that this is the introduction to both Green and to 1970s pop music. The songs are universal, playful, evocative, so much more than just fucktime soundtracks, though that's fine too; and the revelation today is for one, the crunchy, hard-soft production, which makes you want to keep listening for eternity and the likes of which we're unlikely ever to hear again -- music, R&B and otherwise, has simply never sounded so good, before or since. And for two, Green's voice, standing with Aretha Franklin and John Lennon as the finest rock & roll has managed to record; and in terms of his command of his voice and its nuances, he may be the best of all. The perfect collision of masculinity, androgyny, sex, and pain, he can turn you around on everything; he can make you believe again, in rock & roll or soul or singing or sex or life or love or whatever. You need him if you don't have him already. Start here.
Al Green Gets Next to You (1971)