Marvin Gaye

As one of the legends of soul, I really wish Marvin Gaye's records lived up to his reputation more. He expanded the limits of Motown formula in two opposite directions: introducing a greater social consciousness to black pop and pushing the envelope regarding blatant expressions of sexuality. He apparently spent the first half of the '60s unsuccessfully trying to cross over to white audiences with albums filled with whitebread covers of showtunes, but hooked up with Tammi Terrell to record several much more successful albums of duets ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). Gaye ditched the showbiz schmaltz around the same time, scoring a string of gritty (for Motown) R & B hits. Terrell died in 1970, which caused Gaye to reassess his career as a singer of formulaic Motown singles material; the next year, he released the landmark What's Going On over Motown president Berry Gordy's objections, thereby securing greater artistic freedom for black artists in the industry. He continued releasing more albums throughout the '70s, some hits, some duds, without demonstrating much artistic growth, until 1982's Midnight Love, which set him on the comeback trail. Unfortunately, an argument led to his father fatally shooting him in 1984.

Throughout his career, Gaye struggled with the contradictions between carnality and religious conviction, sometimes leading him to some very weird places lyric- and vibe-wise. He's a limited performer with a limited conceptual range; often he seemed content simply to repeat himself with decreasing dividends. The exception to this pattern (laziness?) is What's Going On. Also, his albums can grow incredibly monotonous; he simply works one silky, seductive groove to death, with little variation in tempo or overarrangement. As such, he's probably the most overrated of the legendary soul singers, though some of his records do provide plenty of pleasure, and as an influence he's unavoidable - Prince, to name one example, wouldn't have known how to peddle his pornographic fantasies without the original excessively randy love man.

Hello Broadway (1964) *1/2

Yech. This artifact, which seems to be typical of Gaye's first few albums, contains soulless covers of whitebread showtune standards - "The Days of Wine and Roses," the title track, "Hello Dolly," "My Way," "Walk On the Wild Side," etc. (the last two are not the Sinatra or Reed classics, which would have been a neat trick seeing as how they hadn't been written yet). Perhaps if you're a smarmy neo-swing revivalist fratboy, you might dig it, baby (or if you're eligible for Social Security), but for the rest of us, these are unlistenable showtunes. Odd for a legendary soul man to start off as the black Lawrence Welk, isn't it?

M.P.G. (1969) ***

A pleasant, but unessential collection of standard high-energy, three-minute Motown singles and filler. Some of it's good ("Too Busy Worrying About My Baby," "More Than A Heart Can Stand," "Only A Lonely Man Would Know," "That's the Way Love Is"), some of it's not ("This Magic Moment," the unbearable "Memories"), which was typical of Motown releases of the time. You're better off hearing the good material on a greatest hits package, but if you see this cheap, it's a nice ride. The major problem is that none of the singles really sound like classics, which makes for a rather minor item in Gaye's ouvre.

What's Going On (1971) ****

For its vast influence I ought to rate this a full star higher, but once you separate the concept from the actual music, it doesn't measure up to the praises showered upon it. Still, it's Gaye's unquestionable artistic peak; never again would he take chances and completely reinvent himself as he does here. He really comes into his own, as this disc sounds nothing like his earlier, tentative records. Instead of belting out three-minute Motown singles, the grooves stretch out, ebbing and flowing as one cut bleeds into the other. Between Side One's bookends - two classic Top Ten singles, the title track and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" - are a string of short, not fully written songs all seamlessly tied together - a bit like the suite on side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road. Side Two only has three lengthy songs, one of which - the heavy funk protest number, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" - was a third Top Ten hit. He circularly ends the album with a brief fragment of the opening title track. Historically important as the first concept album in a black pop context, this brought many of the conceptual innovations of white '60s rock to R & B and allowed other Motown artists more freedom of expression.

Let's Get It On (1973) ***

The hit title track is far and away the best tune on this effort; the rest tiresomely reworks the same groove with less interesting results. It all sounds the same, and though in limited doses it's fine, by the end of the album you're half asleep. Gaye even reworks "Let's Get It On," as "Keep Gettin' It On," a sure sign of not enough ideas - actually, he only really has one idea. Gaye's one-track mind and unvarying tone make this ideal for making out on the couch, though. In its own way, this was as influential as What's Going On, as songs like "You Sure Love To Ball," were shockingly frank for mainstream R & B at the time.

In Our Lifetime (1981) **1/2

I'm not quite sure what the problem with this album is; some of it's fine, and when it's in the background it's nice. The problem is that none of the songs really grab me, and once the record's over I have no interest in playing it again. Old dog Gaye just can't seem to learn any new tricks, and these songs sound like dull outtakes from both What's Going On and Let's Get It On - which makes for a more varied album than either, and a very confused one. Gaye spends a lot of time meditating on God on this album - the cover, of Gaye face to face as an angel and devil, ought to clue you in. To call his theology crackpot would be cruel, but that's what it comes off as; like many musicians, his intellect isn't that deep when it comes to weighty matters. The second side's centerpiece is a rambling allegory setting up a good god vs. an evil god, with a possible (my ears can't quite tell me) slur against Buddhism. Of interest to Gaye fanatics, but go to the other ones first.

Midnight Love (1982) ***1/2

Gaye's comeback album tragically turned out to be his last; it's the best work he's done in years, as he breaks with his by now tired formulas and fools around with early '80s electronics. It's surprisingly warm despite the heavy use of synthesizers, and contains his biggest hit since "Let's Get It On," the sweetly melodic "Sexual Healing". This is a typical Gaye album, which means that the singles are easily the best songs on the record and that he works one groove throughout the entire proceeding. However, he's allowed more variety than usual, even throwing in some faux-Caribbean ("Third World Girl"). "Midnight Lady," and the gospel-fervored "My Love Is Waiting," are the two other real classics, and the rest is quite solid. Perhaps his most consistent set of songs.

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