Thursday, March 8, 2012
Al Green: Let's Stay Together (1972)
First there's the single and title track, improbably enough (seriously, how can this be?) Green's only #1 hit; even after it's become one of the most recognizable musical pop culture staples of the last four decades, it still sounds like this zigzagging bouncing and slightly out-of-time thing that amounts in its roundabout fashion to dance music! -- achingly slow dance music drenched in sexuality, body music, but still some colorful work of art that's finally coolly and solely devoted to movement. Everything funnels into that, above all (but by no means ending with) Green's voice, this affected confidence that makes no great show of its versatility because it doesn't have to stretch to present it. It just is what it naturally is, croaking and cooing, mumbling ("whypeopleabreaaakup") and suddenly at just the right time, woo! The pop and soul (take your pick, or both) masterpiece is such because it ends just before it has the chance to be too much, just tantalizingly short enough to leave you hanging and longing. We've not even mentioned the horns. Who has enough words for those horns?
They're sleazy, to say the least; they define sleaze, of the sort that laughs in the face of its unbridled, crazed penetrative cry; they're the final result of the din that began with the intrusively surreal, nasty sax breaks on Little Richard's early records, the ones that seemed to burst with an underbelly of nightlife many of the prospective listeners could only imagine. In Green's world, that underbelly is nothing to hide from; it lives in our own bedrooms and fantasies. Who knows how much he would admit that "Old Time Lovin'," arguably the peak of the horns and sleaze both, is total late-night? He doesn't really talk about anything untoward here, but he sings it because it's in his throat, barely held back in the way he runs across the words, words he visits one by one and all together in a full-bodied way no other singer could. They mean nothing on paper -- "I don't want you to turn your back on your friends but I really need that old time lovin'... I know there might be times when I neglect you baby" -- but as he presents them, it's all a torrent of bawdy imagery and the haze of heated passions. Who knows if Green was stripping while he recorded "I've Never Found a Girl"; he is in the mind of just about everyone that's heard it, male or female, gay or straight.
What are the mechanics? How does it work? It's more than Green's killer voice and (it has to be said, now or never) unstoppably smart, economical songwriting. Let's Stay Together is the archetypal soul album of the '70s largely because of the spareness of Willie Mitchell's production and arrangements. By now he and Green are finishing one another's musical sentences; it's a heavenly collaboration. Green's simultaneous swagger and selflessness, the nakedness of his full-on expression, is given the best kind of instrumental complement anyone could've mustered; Mitchell's horns on "So You're Leaving," his strings on "Judy," the syncopation and quiet relentlessness of "La La for You," and the stilted stop-start funk of "It Ain't No Fun to Me" -- these are the best and most dazzlingly subjective fusions of voice and music this side of Arthur Lee on Forever Changes, Marvin Gaye on What's Going On -- and more consistently impressive in cohesion of mood than either.
After the varied, boundary-smashing Al Green Gets Next to You, the duo launches an unerringly focused offensive on balladry here. It's one complete body of perfectly expressed restlessness and brilliantly-paced orgasmic joy, a masterpiece of mood. Incredibly enough, it doesn't even peak with "Let's Stay Together" itself, nor even with the inexhaustible "I've Never Found a Girl (Who Loves Me Like You Do)," the stark and filthy "It Ain't No Fun to Me." No, this record flexes its muscle most unforgettably on, of all things, a Bee Gees cover. This was before the Bee Gees mastered the aching soul-disco of their Saturday Night Fever period, back when they were a middle-of-the-road blue-eyed soul non-starter; the original version of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" is typical of them for this period. Though possessive of a stunningly sensual melody, it's basically dross. Green turns it around into seven minutes of hypnotic magic, falling down into a groove of such intensity he seems to be gradually losing his mind. You think that woo on the title track is something, just wait till you get to the part when he goes off the deep end of "I just wanna I just wanna I just wanna live again, yeahh." It's absolutely invigorating. It's undeniable. It's a master plugging away at his thesis -- ageless and gorgeously preserved after all these years.
Definitive Greatest Hits (1967-2007)
Al Green Gets Next to You (1971)